It’s hard to know just what will trigger a long-forgotten memory; it’s harder still to know just where that memory will lead. A small piece in last Sunday’s paper mentioned that the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 22 — 50 years ago. Of course, here in Texas we all credit Lady Bird Johnson with the impressive expanses of bluebonnets and wildflowers along our highways. That’s all good.
But highway beautification as a national mandate — Wow, I missed that one, I guess, in my youth. Actually, now that I think about it, I was living in Europe at the time — billboard proliferation along American highways was not something I concerned myself with then. But, on Sunday, that little news story suddenly brought back the memory of red and white Burma-Shave signs — and the realization that the act signed into law that long ago October day most likely spelled the end of a long tradition. Those clever advertising messages sometimes contained important messages; they certainly prompted adult smiles and kept young minds occupied for almost 40 years.
The 1965 Outdoor Advertising Control Program did not actually mandate the removal of signs, and it really didn’t force states to control those massive billboards. It was designed to discourage excessive signage along the Interstates, and stipulated that development funds could be withheld for non-compliance by the states. In that way, it was effective. And the Interstate highway system soon supplanted most of the older highways.
You had to be there: Missing one of the signs could sometimes be the cause of tears; more often, an attempt to fill in the missing word or phrase spawned uncontrollable giggles. It was, for generations of kids, one of the few fun things about road trips — often long, hot, dusty treks along not-so-good highways. Towns in most of this United States at that time were far apart, usually small, and boasted no readily available “fast food.” Gas station and rest room stops were the result of advance planning, for the most part.
Summer or winter, travel could be iffy — heat, cold, mechanical problems, flat tires, boredom, seemingly endless stretches of blacktop. Radio station signals made news and music unreliable across vast distances. But the signs — oh, those signs! We all looked forward to them. The “game” became who spotted the first sign first. Then, everyone “won” as the message was revealed across the miles. At the height of their campaign, Burma-Shave had 7,000 signs in all but four of the Lower 48 states.
Yes, the occasional giant billboard may have ruined the view, distracted drivers and “polluted” the landscape. But, Burma-Shave signs? Although I haven’t thought about them for decades, I miss them. I’m also sorry I couldn’t play the game with my own child; I have trouble even explaining the concept to my grandchildren. But, then, today we travel on smoother Interstate highways — and the kids are plugged in to their own virtual world of movies, music or audio books.
The times have changed — but, the “road goes on forever.” I’ll just spend the rest of the day humming that tune and laughing about those verses! There’s currently a new interest in Route 66 and its associated memorabilia. Sadly, though, Burma-Shave signs seem to have disappeared forever.
Some of them were totally about the shaving cream. In 1932:
You’ll love your wife
You’ll love her paw
You’ll even love
If you use
Others were just plain clever! From 1945:
To go by air
If we could put
These signs up there
Sometimes they had important messages. Here’s a good one from 1949:
Ashes to Ashes
Forests to Dust
Keep Minnesota Green
Or we’ll ‘
All go Bust
They could also be a little risque. This one’s from 1959:
Baby your skin
Keep it fitter
You can read more of the iconic road-sign jingles, indexed by year at Burma-Shave.org.