Although he is best known as the author of many books, Olney also enjoys writing shorter pieces for magazines and newspapers. Here's one of his favorites. It appeared in a Southern California newspaper.
They were small rusty red signs. They sold millions of jars of shaving cream, and they rescued a foundering company.
WITHIN THIS VALE...OF TOIL AND SIN...YOUR HEAD GROWS BALD...BUT NOT YOUR CHIN
Two words on the last sign were always the same.
If you're over fifty and drove pre-turnpike "highways," you remember them. If you're younger, you missed something good. Burma Shave signs, posted between smaller towns along yesterday's two-lane farm roads, brightened the slower automobile journeys of that era. They said funny, pleasant things like:
HIS FACE...WAS LOVED...BY JUST HIS MOTHER...HE BURMA-SHAVED...AND NOW… OH, BROTHER!
In 1925, Clinton Odell, a Minneapolis lawyer, went nearly bankrupt trying to sell a homemade liniment. To attempt to regroup, Odell invented "Burma Vita," a brushless shaving cream. The product became known as "Burma Shave." The Odells sank deeper into debt.
Then salesman-son Al O'Dell spotted some small signs between Aurora and Joliet, Illinois. A gas station dealer had posted them on fence posts along the road approaching his business to announce GAS, then OIL, then REST ROOMS, and more.
Young Al liked what he saw. He hurried home, kicked the idea around with his Dad, then painted his own set of signs on crude boards.
SHAVE THE MODERN WAY...FINE FOR THE SKIN...DRUGGISTS HAVE IT...BURMA SHAVE said the four small, relatively uninspired signs.
Did they work? You BET they did.
Repeat orders, the first in the company's history, began to roll in. Dad Odell and Al thought up other slogans, this time rhyming. They posted roadside signs at precisely calculated intervals.
DON'T STICK...YOUR ELBOW...OUT SO FAR...IT MIGHT GO HOME...IN ANOTHER CAR
Then, of course, BURMA SHAVE.
The little signs delighted highway travelers of the day. They were FUN!
Thinking of the little red signs brings a lump to many throats. Thinking of the signs brings memories of a happy boy who wasn't even considering shaving yet. Thinking of the signs reminds me of my kid brother and sister, and my Mom and Dad now gone, and the fun we all had together as we headed for "the lake" on a warm, midwestern summer day.
HIS FACE WAS SMOOTH...AND COOL AS ICE...AND, OH LOUISE!...HE SMELLED SO NICE
Occasionally the highway signs had an impious message.
DOES YOUR HUSBAND MISBEHAVE...GRUNT AND GRUMBLE...RANT AND RAVE...SHOOT THE BRUTE SOME...and, of course, the inevitable ending sign, BURMA SHAVE.
Alexander Woollcott wrote that it was as difficult to read just one Burma Shave sign as it was to eat just one salted peanut.
Burma Shave became the leading brushless shaving cream on the market. We anticipated the little red signs even if they were advertising a product.
PITY ALL...THE MIGHTY CAESARS...THEY PULLED EACH WHISKER OUT...WITH TWEEZERS
Another drew laughter from my entire family as we chugged along in a Model A.
BENEATH THIS STONE...LIES ELMER GUSH...TICKLED TO DEATH...BY HIS...SHAVING BRUSH You're middle-aged or more if you feel a tear in your eye.
If the kids in the car were really sharp, with a quick memory, they could have a grand time by looking back on the other side of the two lane road and untangling reversed signs.
THOSE COUGH DROP BROTHERS...WE STILL CAN'T SELL...SIX MILLION OTHERS...WE'VE SOLD...ALTHO, or, JUMPS FOR JOY...DARN FACTORY...OUR WHOLE...DELIVERS A BOY...WHEN THE STORK
When electric shavers began to win approval, the Odells fought back. A SILKY CHEEK...SHAVED SMOOTH AND CLEAN…IS NOT OBTAINED…WITH A MOWING MACHINE
Boy girl jingles were popular in the forties.
SAID JULIET...TO ROMEO...IF YOU WON'T SHAVE...GO HOMEO
Or, HE HAD THE RING...HE HAD THE FLAT...BUT SHE FELT HIS CHIN...AND THAT WAS THAT
Or even THE ANSWER TO...A MAIDEN'S... PRAYER..IS NOT A CHIN...OF STUBBY HAIR
We didn't mind the ending sign with the product message BURMA SHAVE. Instead, we bought the product.
Highway safety was offered, but always pleasantly.
REMEMBER THIS...IF YOU'D BE SPARED...TRAINS DON'T WHISTLE...,BECAUSE THEY'RE SCARED
You thought safety when you read, DON'T TAKE...A CURVE...AT 60 PER...WE HATE TO LOSE...A CUSTOMER
Or, WE KNOW...HOW MUCH...YOU LOVE THAT GAL...BUT USE BOTH HANDS...FOR DRIVING, PAL
Any sign that might be even slightly offensive was quickly rejected. The Odells considered, LISTEN BIRDS...THESE SIGNS COST...MONEY...SO ROOST AWHILE...BUT DON'T GET FUNNY
They never used this one.
One sign became an all-time classic.
PAST SCHOOLHOUSES... TAKE IT SLOW...LET THE LITTLE...SHAVERS GROW
Burma Shave signs became one of the best speed reducers of all.
One said, SLOW DOWN, PA...SAKES ALIVE...MA MISSED SIGNS...FOUR...AND FIVE
Between 1927 and 1963, nearly 700 Burma Shave verses appeared on thousands of roadways across the United States. During the Second World War, the signs became patriotic.
SHAVING BRUSH...IN ARMY PACK...WAS STRAW THAT BROKE...THE ROOKIE'S BACK said one. Another said, LET'S MAKE HITLER...AND HIROHITO...LOOK AS SICK...AS OLD BENITO
The Odell's also stayed with highway safety.
DRINKING DRIVERS...ENHANCE THEIR...CHANCE...TO HIGHBALL HOME...IN AN AMBULANCE
In 1963 the company was sold and the signs were removed. You couldn't read a friendly little rusty red sign from a high speed turnpike or freeway. An era had ended. Original Burma Shave signs, one of the most successful advertising campaigns in ad history, are now collector's items. Perhaps one of the last signs says it best.
IF YOU...DON'T KNOW...WHOSE SIGNS...THESE ARE...YOU CAN'T HAVE...DRIVEN VERY FAR
Then, of course, BURMA SHAVE