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The Smithsonian and the Edina History Museum share something in common. We both have Burma-Shave items in our collection.
For those of you chuckling, I don't need to explain the good fun the Burma-Shave signs provided during long road trips. For those of you too young to recall the 1960s and earlier, the Burma Vita company of Minneapolis advertised their Burma-Shave brushless shaving cream with humorous rhyming jingles, told in a series of six signs at the side of the road.
Every visitor has a favorite. Edina resident Allan Odell, who created the jingles for the family company started by his grandfather, loved this one: "Within this vale/ of toil/ and sin/ your head grows bald/ but not your chin /Burma-Shave" He chose that set to give to the Smithsonian.
We don't have a full set of signs -- the family kept just a few signs for nostalgia purposes. Out of the thousands of signs that dotted the landscape throughout the country, many ended up as fishing docks, furniture and firewood.
However, thanks to Allan's son Clinton B. Odell, we have a lot of very cool items, such as Burma-Shave products sold throughout the four decades it was in business as well as a bag, made by Allan's wife Grace, with a needlepoint image of a Model T driving by Burma-Shave signs,and other Burma-Shave memorabilia.
Another fabulous artifact is a huge wall map that hung in the Minneapolis sign shop, dotted with red pins that show where each set of signs was located. This sign was donated by Richard Kammerer, whose father John received the map as a gift when he retired as head of the sign shop. The map had been stored in a pole barn in northern Minnesota, and the family felt that the museum was a better home for the sign.
The company struggled until the advertising jingles brought fame. The Odells moved from Minneapolis to Edina. Patriarch Clinton M. Odell and son Allan Odell each lived in the Country Club District, and son Leonard Odell, who was also very involved in the company, lived in Morningside.
The Burma-Shave story is chronicled in two books, both available at Hennepin County libraries: "The Verse by the Side of the Road: the Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles" by Frank Rowsome and "Burma-Shave: the Rhymes, the Signs, the Times" by Bill Vossler. The Vossler book is also available in our Gift Shop, and it includes a handy index to the jingles. (For example, if you can't quite remember a favorite, you can look it up by key words.) All 500-plus jingles are listed in the book.
For a quick education on-line, check out the website for Eisner American Museum of Advertising & Design. Their feature on Burma-Shave includes video and audio files and lots of interesting graphics.
We are grateful to both the Odell and Kammerer families for their donations. These items are currently not on display, but every time we bring them out for an exhibit, visitors take a little trip down memory lane. Even those who didn't grow up with the signs long for the days when life was simpler, travel was more leisurely and families enjoyed reading signs like this one: "Around the curve/ lickety-split/ beautiful car/ wasn't it?/ Buy / Burma-Shave" or "Santa's/ Whiskers/ Need no trimmin/ He kisses kids/ not the wimmin/ Burma-Shave".
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