Burma-Shave made big news in 1958 with a “special roadside offer” on its signage. The message read:
Free – Free / a trip / to Mars / for 900 / empty jars.
Cory Doctorow of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, told the story on the Boing Boing social media website several years ago.
Burma-Shave “had made no preparations to send anyone to Mars, should the 900 jars materialize,” Doctorow said. “They hadn’t bargained on Arliss ‘Frenchie’ French of Appleton, Wis., manager of the town’s Red Owl Supermarket.”
French built a rocket ship display in his store and offered 15 cents for every Burma-Shave jar his customers brought in.
“He ran a full-page ad in the local newspaper reading, ‘Send Frenchie to Mars.’” Doctorow wrote: “As the empties accumulated in his store, he telegraphed the Burma-Shave company: ‘Please advise where to ship the jars.’”
In response, the company wired back:
If a trip to Mars / you yearn / remember, friend / there’s no return.
Our rockets are ready / we ain’t splitting hairs / just send us the jars / and arrange your affairs.
Burma-Shave’s Plan A was to send Frenchie and his wife, Frances, to the Mars Candy Company in Chicago for a weekend on the town. Company officials acknowledged that plan was rather lame.
Plan B was to invest in the moment and send the couple off for a European vacation in Moers, West Germany (pronounced as “Mars”).
Newspapers reported that “78 of the city’s 105,000 residents” were there to welcome Frenchie and Frances to German soil on Dec. 4, 1958.
All in the welcoming party received free jars of Burma-Shave...and the international publicity was priceless.
Jim Holland, a reporter with the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal, took his readers on a bit of a road trip to share some of his favorite Burma-Shave “public service” messages that addressed safe motoring and environmental stewardship.
Train approaching / whistle squealing / stop / avoid that run-down feeling.
Keep well / to the right / of the oncoming car / get your close shaves / from the half pound jar.
Hardly a driver / is now alive / who passed / on hills / At 75.
Many a forest / used to stand / where a / lighted match / got out of hand.
Few commercial products find their way into American musicology. In 1961, “Burma Shave” was written and recorded by the king of novelty tunes, Roger Miller. One quick verse goes like this:
Yonder goes Willie / he’s passin’ on a hill / he don’t dress nice / but he drives / fit to kill. / Burma-Shave.
Though amusing and cute, Miller’s song wasn’t exactly a chart-buster. It couldn’t reverse a market trend that saw Burma-Shave’s sales take a downhill slide in the 1960s, due largely to improvements in the nation’s “transportation infrastructure.”
The company became part of Philip Morris in 1963, and the roadside signs were all removed by 1966. The Burma-Shave brand was eventually discontinued and retired from American commerce.
That was a sad ending for the home-grown Minnesota company that had been born in 1925.
What would it take to bundle up a bunch of skillful Carteret County writers to resurrect the Burma-Shave jingles?
Goin’ Down East / there’s nary a ridge / so drive with care / o’er the / Monroe Gaskill Bridge / Burma-Shave.