NEWS & VIEWS OF PHILLIPS SINCE 1976
Wednesday August 23rd 2017

Keep citizen journalism alive!

Donatebutton_narrow

Archives

Save &/Or Rave Burma-Shave: Disaster Comes to a Contest

BY SARAH SILVER

I was a jingle judge for the Burma Shave company. Actually, I got the job under false pretenses. In the Spring of 1956 I had bumped into an old friend from journalism school, who told me that an opening was available – “just mention Ed Emery, a professor at the college,” she said, “you’ll be the next jingle judge.”

That’s what happened. They assumed Mr. Emery had sent me, so I was hired for a four-month period to start immediately. For readers born after 1960, Burma Shave was an internationally-known phenomenon. Famous from the 1920’s through the 1950’s for its unique advertising methods, this modestly-operated company was located next to a railroad track in the Bryn Mawr area of North Minneapolis [moved from 2019 E. Lake Street 1925-1935].  Its main products were a shave-less cream and a not-so-well-known powder toothpaste.

To advertise the shaving cream, Burma Shave erected thousands of sets of five consecutive signs along  highways all over America and neighboring countries. Each sign had a segment of a rhyming jingle. The punch line always was followed by the words, “Burma Shave” on the fifth sign.

The company had six executives, five secretaries, one woman in the basement and one part-time jingle judge. One of the executives – an inventor – hooked up a “Rube Goldberg” contraption of vats and pipes on the main floor where the shaving cream was mixed. The liquid ran down through the pipes into the basement. There, an assembly line loaded with aerosols stopped while the cans were filled under each pipe. The unknown woman in the basement placed the cans in cartons which the innovative assembly table shoved into railroad boxcars waiting by the door.

The five old-timers in the office included Fidelia, Venera, Gwen-Rose, Margaret and Hispatia, each having worked for the company at least two decades.

Once every three years the company advertised in a contest magazine for jingle contestants. It was my job to read the entries that were mailed in and type the best 600 on a master sheet. The six executives would then check their favorites; the six jingles with the largest number of checks were picked to be used on the signs. First prize was $l000. The next five prizes were $100 each. Four entries received $25 and several won $5. Fifty people were awarded $2. The categories included: selling copy, Burma Bomb, humor, economy, tough beards and tender skins, substitutes, and safe driving.

A simpler operation could never be imagined, especially today in our world of conglomerates. Even the silk-screening for the signs was processed in the basement. Needless to say, the owners in their Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs, left work daily at 4:30 p.m. Holidays not only included the usual Thanksgiving, Christmas and 4th of July, but the offices also closed for obscure celebrations such as the Boxer Rebellion, James J. Hill Day and the Bicycle Bicentennial.

My job was easy at first. Two or three times a week I’d bring home the contest mail from the office and would read the letters in the evening when I had nothing else to do. Maybe two hundred would arrive each week. Fidelia warned me that most of the jingles were delivered just after the postmarked deadline of April l. About 75% of the verses seemed to be about Elvis Presley and Rock and Roll. After a time these were automatically relegated to the rejection box. Clever jingles stood out like golden nuggets. I loved the visual effects of this verse: “Ten thousand penguins – Jumped off a cliff – A bearded archeologist – Scared them stiff.” Burma Shave. Not one executive checked it.

Occasionally, a postcard would inadvertently appear in the contest mail. Often some farmer would write, who had contracted with the company to maintain the signs on his property for $l a year. “Your jingles blew down in the North 40 – you better come and get ‘em,” the card would read. Signed, Joshua Black, from Big Blow, Alabama.

As the weeks passed, more and more entries arrived. Husband Gerry and I could easily read 1000 per evening. Our kids loved to play with the paper clips that were used with the Burma Shave qualifier labels. Soon our house was festooned with clips from the fireplace to the bathroom.

One day I had a great idea. “Why don’t we write some jingles with Kenny Morgan’s name and address. I can put them on the master list,” was my suggestion. Our friends, Ken and Jan were also journalism grads. We would spend Sundays thinking up verses. All in all, I sneaked nine of our jingles into the master sheet. This was my favorite: “ A matador’s beard – Such a terrible sight – The bull lay down – and died of fright.” Ultimately, cheating never pays. Of the nine verses submitted, only the matador was checked – and just once. We didn’t even rate a $2 prize.

Finally, it was April First, and a deluge of 28,000 envelopes arrived. We were overwhelmed. One lady enclosed 76 entries in her envelope with the same mysterious theme for each entry, “All that glitters is not gold.” All were rejected on the grounds of incomprehension. Her attempts were in some kind of free verse. Maybe it was a harbinger of things to come. A three-foot-tall cardboard tower wrapped in silver paper hid a jingle about Elvis, of course. A beautiful Lady Baltimore cake inside a tin box was decorated with a porno poem. The verse escapes me at the moment – something about Willie. The best contestants often were on the master sheet five or six times with good jingles in several categories. Probably, they were professional applicants who also won Burma Shave contests in previous years. Some did win multiple prizes. The $1000 went to a woman from Dallas, Texas for: “The draftee tried a tube – and purred – well whaddya know – I’ve been defurred. Burma Shave.” Two of the $100 winners wrote: “Men with whiskers – Neath their noses – Have to kiss – Like Eskimoses. And “Drinking drivers – Nothing worse – They put the quart – Before the hearse.”

The contest was over, the prizes had been awarded, now the worst was about to happen. As part of the job, I had agreed to mail each applicant an acknowledgment postcard. It meant typing 30,000 names and addresses on my broken-down L.C. Smith portable typewriter. (Computers with scanners hadn’t been invented yet.) Since so many persons had more than one entry, I tried to weed them out by sorting names according to states. Soon, the floor in every corner of the house was covered with stacks of teetering address piles. Our small rambler had only six rooms – there were 48 states at the time. Even the bathtub was put to use for the state of Nevada. Unfortunately, a bunch of retired trailer owners had nothing else to do but enter contests. The piles in the tub reached the height of the shower-head before falling into the toilet.

Finally, I started to type. But after finishing several hundred addresses, within an hour my wrist would hurt. After all, I was not a professional typist and didn’t even own a desk. Obviously, carpal tunnel syndrome was the unknown disease. The typing was abandoned. “Perhaps nobody will notice,” I convinced myself. Within a week, Allen O’Dell, the president, called me. “Sarah,” he said, “we’ve been getting complaints from all over the country about postcards that weren’t delivered.”

I knew I had to tell the truth or I’d be investigated for falsely incriminating the U.S. Postal Service. So I openly admitted being too far behind to catch up. At that, Mr. O’Dell said, “You’re fired!” What a relief! At least I was paid $600 for the three months work, and even better we could finally take baths again. (The five office secretaries spent three weeks working at a steady pace to finish the addresses.)

About two years later, the Burma Shave Company was sold to Phillip Morris. It was the end of an era, when two-lane highways and slow speed limits made it easy for joy-riders to read the roadside jingles. Maybe, the advent of super highways put Burma Shave out of business, or maybe those cute red signs were too corny for an increasingly jaded population. Whatever the reason, you can be sure I would happily jump at the chance once more to judge a zany verse like: “Time to kiss – Bride grew pale – His whiskers caught – Upon her veil.” Burma Shave.

Share this with your friends:
  • email
  • Print
  • PDF
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Tumblr
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Google Bookmarks

Leave a Reply