Before Eisenhower’s dream of the Interstate Highway System came true, America traveled back roads. National roads, county roads, and main streets were the way to get to where you were going.
And during the formative years of many Americans today, journeys and roads were lined with aptly styled and memorable advertisements.
The roads of mid-20th century America were filled with creative and engaging locations, which was way better than the paid exit signs we pass today on our way to a meal and a break.
One of the most memorable products was Burma-Shave, a brushless shaving cream that was primarily advertised by road signs displayed in series, each one a line of a rhyme.
She got wild
When it got woolly
Rely on the horn
Instead of braking
The girl he married
Let a cry
Felt his chin and
Stole the chicken coop
The company even ran contests where anyone could get paid if they wrote a nursery rhyme used by the company.
Nursery rhymes were ubiquitous between the 1930s and early to mid-1960s and were wildly successful. The idea originated in the 1920s and would have cost a few hundred dollars to implement. In the 1960s, sales peaked at over $ 3 million.
Not bad for an initial investment of $ 200.
Today, excellent roadside advertising has been replaced by unlit corporate logos stuck on poles at freeway exits, promoting businesses such as McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Cracker Barrel.
A few decades ago, the majority of restaurants, diners, cafes and gas stations were owned by locals. Families, including the original owners of Burma-Shave, worked hard to make their business thrive.
Much of their success could be attributed to their catchy slogans and glowing neon-glowing business names, which helped attract the number of customers needed to make a living.
Advertising has become a game. The wilder and wackier it is, the better.
On Route 66, motor inns were often themed. You might see individual pieces in the shape of teepees; or a Sinclair gas station with a giant dinosaur.
That’s what made being a kid and going on a trip fun back then. Often times we didn’t have air conditioning so we were riding with air blowing in our faces. We would also have the aromas offered by the region, including burgers, barbecue and bread.
Between the neon signs, the rhymes and the anticipation of finally getting to our destination, the drive was awesome and a fun place to be.
Even the simplest of neon signs including “Vacancy / No Vacancy”, https: //www.texarkanagazette.com/news/2021/oct/24/john-moore-column-signs-of-other-times/ “We ‘re Open,” https://www.texarkanagazette.com/news/2021/oct/24/john-moore-column-signs-of-other-times/ “Eat Here,” and others, a required a lot of work to build and light.
Coincidentally, it was across the street from the first house I bought that life began for many of the neon signs that for decades had helped the city of Texarkana shine and grow.
Yeah. I lived right across from an old neon sign factory.
My house was on East 6th Street on the Arkansas side of Texarkana. And, ironically, it was just one street off a national road lined with inns, cafes, restaurants, and tourist traps – many of which featured neon signs.
It was the early 80’s, and on warm summer evenings I would sit on the porch sipping a glass of sweet tea and touring the long-closed factory.
To look at the scene as a whole, it seemed like the employees had projects they were working on; they went home one day and just never came back.
And where they left off were many unfinished projects, piles of old signs, piles of glass tubes, and 55 gallon barrels of whatever.
The view never bothered me, but my neighbors did. They complained a lot to the city, but luckily the police never came and took nothing away. At least not while I was still living there.
It was the first time I had the chance to see how something like a neon sign was put together. (Of course, I only saw it from the safety of my porch. Going up close and looking through things would have been wrong and against the law.)
Today we can watch Mike Rowe do a TV episode about how something falls into place, but back then we had to either wonder or buy a house across from a sign factory in the neon closed.
But living across the street from this place was great. There was just enough left to see the process they had used to build and assemble neon signs – large and small.
The aim of advertising was and still is to be as creative as possible. Creativity, neon and wording – that’s always what catches the eye.
In my opinion, the middle of the last century was the height of great outdoor advertising. And across from my house was a production plant for what had helped many families in the area find their way to success.
In some cities and businesses, neon is making a comeback. I hope it will hang on. I would love to see him light up the lives of the next generation.
Burma-Shave is gone now, but if he ever returns, I wrote a series of signs for them.
Guys don’t shave their legs
They leave them woolly
Add a neon sign
You will see them fully
© 2021 John Moore
(John Moore is a 1980 Ashdown High School graduate who lived in Texarkana and worked for KTFS radio in the 1980s. John’s new book, Puns for Groan People, and his books, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now Vol. 1 and Volume 2, are available on his website, TheCountryWriter.com. His weekly podcast John G. Moore appears on Spotify and iTunes. You can email him through his website at TheCountryWriter.com.)
Series of Burma Shave signs along Route 66 in Hackberry, Arizona. It was part of a large roadside campaign to sell shaving cream. (Photo by Ken Koehler, now in the public domain, courtesy of its creator.)