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Burma-Shave signs return to Solon

By Chris Umscheid
Solon Economist
SOLON– Between 1925 and 1963, 7,000 witty signs hawking Burma-Shave were deployed along the highways of the United States. As four-lane super highways and the interstate system pulled traffic off of the once busy two-lane roads, the advertising campaign ceased. The ravages of time and collectors took their toll as many of the signs disappeared from sight. Occasionally, some can still be seen. An original set stands just south of Clarence as an example.
However, just outside of Solon, a time warp has occurred as a fresh set appeared earlier this summer.
Drivers on Iowa Highway 382 coming into Solon are greeted by five new signs proclaiming the following: “Heaven’s Latest / Neophyte / Signaled Left / And Then / Turned Right.” The sixth, instead of the famous flourish logo for Burma-Shave, says “Our Iowa,” a bi-monthly magazine of all things Iowa. Since April 2010, the producers of the magazine have endeavored to place one set of the classic signs in each of the state’s 99 counties.
Solonite Marv Stastny read about the scheme, filled out the application, and won the set of signs. The application process was easy, but specific. He had to describe where the signs would be placed, assure they would be maintained, and ensure landowners had given their consent.
Originally, Stastny looked at 180th St. just west of the Solon High School. However the county wouldn’t allow him to place the signs in their right-of-way, preferring instead they be placed on the adjacent landowners’ property. With prime farm ground involved, Stastny was turned down.
The site along Hwy. 382 is located within Solon city limits, and Stastny had no trouble getting approval, and help, from the city.
Our Iowa Magazine approved his application and he received the signs this past spring. They went up shortly before Beef Days.
“I picked a good time,” Stastny said. The city sent out a crew with a power auger to bore holes for the posts. But, the dry ground was solid as a rock, and at best they were able to make a shallow pocket. Stastny went and got water, which he poured in to soften the ground and allow the auger to do its job. Once the holes were finally dug, rock was placed around the posts to steady them and deter weed growth, an important consideration for Stastny. Sturdy lag screws secured the signs in an effort to prevent thievery. Stastny’s grandson Wil Simpson also assisted.
“They’re nice signs,” Stastny said. “The saying is self-evident.” Originally, the signs were part sales pitch, part safety effort as they were designed to use catchy phrases to get drivers to slow down and read them.
“They promoted safe driving,” said Stastny.
The phrase was his second of three choices. Stastny explained the applicant could pick three, rated first, second and third. Ultimately, the magazine made the decision of what to send.
So why did the longtime resident and Optimist member choose to try for the signs?
“It’s what I do. I go around town, pull weeds and such. It’s good to have a town look nice. Appearances are important,” said Stastny.
The background of the Burma-Shave signs is almost as interesting as their teasing jingles.
The roadside rhymes were started by Allan Odell in 1925, with $200 he borrowed from his father, who owned the Burma-Vita Company.
Odell came up with the idea– a unique way to promote the family’s brushless shaving cream. At first his father was hesitant about this “new fangled advertising idea.” But, reluctant to discourage an ambitious son, he went along with it. And the rest is history.
Odell wrote the original jingles himself, and personally erected the first set of signs in southern Minnesota along U.S. 65 near Albert Lea.
The signs quickly caught the attention of drivers-and buyers. The idea not only worked, it became an American institution.
Each set of rhyming lines was broken into short snippets and placed on sequential signs that could be read up to 50 mph. The last line always said, “Burma-Shave,” in its flourished logo. For almost four decades, the signs dotted the American countryside. At one time there were 7,000 sets of Burma-Shave signs in 45 states. Many promoted safe driving.
For a list of the 96 sign locations (Clarke, Emmet and Greene counties are still open for nominations according to the magazine’s website), go to www.ouriowamagazine.com and click on the “Where to Find Burma-Shave Signs” link on the left side.
Just don’t turn right after you signal for that left turn.