Burma-Shave by Will Wiles

“I guess you’d say I’m on my way to Burma-Shave,” sings Tom Waits in the 1977 song “Burma-Shave”. But where is he going with his female friend? Somewhere, but nowhere in particular. They are just going, getting away from trouble with the law, and from a town that doesn’t have the distinction of being a dead end; it’s just “a wide spot in the road”. Burma-Shave isn’t a destination, and it isn’t even a journey, which implies some kind of specificity. Burma-Shave is the anonymous, insignificant, American ubiquity, the inland ocean in which a person could lose themselves. It is the road; or rather, it is the road-side.

Before that, Burma-Shave was a brand of shaving cream for men, manufactured by the Burma-Vita company, and sold in jars and tubs. It was a chemical step between the earliest shaving soaps, which had to be lathered and applied to the face with a brush, and aerosol shaving foam. Burma-Shave’s unique quality was the way that it was advertised, with a kind of roadside poetry. A Burma-Shave advertisement consisted of six roadside signs, each bearing a few words of text, which cumulatively built into a rhyming jingle. The sixth sign, or line, was almost always “Burma-Shave”. Many of the lyrics played it relatively straight:

Tube / Immense / 35 cents / Easy shaving / Low expense / Burma-Shave

But the advertisements became famous for a characteristic sly wit:

Dewhiskered / Kisses / Defrost / The / Misses / Burma-Shave

As the signs are seen one by one in sequence, and the driver doesn’t necessarily know what’s coming next, the Burma-Shave format lent itself to the set-up and punchline structure of a joke:

Shaving brushes / You’ll soon see ’em / On the shelf / In some / Museum / Burma-Shave

This is a kind of “Dad joke”, in which the humour rests almost entirely in the corny nature of the rhyme, which the viewer knows is coming from the contortions of the second line. And that is fundamentally the whole basis of the Burma-Shave gag, the play between the expected and the unexpected. There is an element of suspense, aided by the tum-ti-tum rhythm of doggerel verse, but the limitations are kept in sight. It’s only an advertising slogan, only a jingle, only a five-line rhyme, there’s only so much it can achieve. If they raise a smile, it’s made all the sweeter by the knowledge that it was the best we could expect.

Many a wolf / Is never let in / Because of the hair / On his / Chinny-chin-chin / Burma-Shave

Overall, hundreds of slogans were written, and appeared on American roads between 1927 to 1963. They are sometimes called billboard art, but strictly speaking the signs were not billboards, or large hoardings designed to be seen from a distance: they were smaller, on the scale of street names or distance markers. They were also mostly red, and could be taken for warning signs. The company began to play on that possible confusion, developing slogans involving road safety:

At intersections / Look each way / A harp sounds nice / But it’s hard to play / Burma-Shave

Sometimes, these safety-based slogans played on the sign’s visibility, along the lines of “If you can read this, you’re too close”:

If these / Signs blur / And bounce around / You’d better park / And walk to town / Burma-Shave

Others put a cynical inflection on the safety message, implying that the company is only interested in preserving life because it serves their broader interests:

Past / Schoolhouses / Take it slow / Let the little / Shavers grow / Burma-Shave

But overall, the tone is collusive, on the side of the reader, concerned for him. The signs had a human scale lacking from billboards, making them more intimate, one-on-one with the driver and passengers. They were very popular, and their multiplicity and ubiquity made them suitable for eye-spy collection. The company traded on this fondness, and compiled small anthologies of the best slogans as promotional freebies. Later slogans were increasingly self-referential, playing with and subverting the expectations built up over decades of fame, to the extent of breaking the sacred format:

Just this once / And just for fun / We’ll let you / Finish / What we’ve begun / ? ? ?

If you / Don’t know / Whose signs / These are / You can’t have / Driven very far

This is not / A clever verse / I tried / And tried / But just / Got Worse

Worse indeed — the end was in sight. Both products and advertising were under technological pressure. The advertisements were expensive to maintain and were being bypassed by faster, more focused freeway driving. In 1963 the company was sold and the ad discontinued, with some sent to the Smithsonian. That same year, Frank Rowsome Jr. published The Verse by the Side of the Road, a compilation of all six hundred of the Burma-Shave slogans, and it’s from there that these examples have been taken.

The Burma-Shave signs, products of the earliest era of American driving when the automobile was capable of actually delivering on its promise of liberation, similarly suggest a genial, helpful capitalism that was on the side of the clean-shaven regular Joe. They have become emblems of innocence, of a purer, prelapsarian world. This is a myth, of course, part of the sentimental stew of American culture. And that’s precisely the quality that made Burma-Shave ideal for melancholy reinvention in the hands of Tom Waits: a tawdry swindle ending in tragedy, the pursuit of something that does not exist: “They say that dreams are growing wild / Just this side / Of Burma-Shave”. This is the rediscovery of the Burma-Shave format as tragedy, the payoff forever deferred, Lucy always snatching away the ball before Charlie Brown can kick it. You might expect that the road and the verse are headed somewhere better, but they always end in

/ Burma-Shave

But what if the hypnotic unfolding of the road could achieve more? As roads became wider, and straighter and smoother, they developed a hypnotic quality; the experience changes as one drives faster. The wide screen of the windshield invites the comparison to film. “The landscape appears in cinematic terms,” writes Iain Borden in his essay “Driving”, “notably those of framing, sequencing, editing, unusual juxtapositions and montage, changing pace, unexplained events and sights and so on, all of which is induced by the speeding, kinematic nature of driving.” Drivers, Borden notes, feel a combination of being in control and out of it; their body is no long their own, they feel they merge with their car, which in turn becomes somehow alive.

For the passenger, entirely passive, the experience is different. Evelyn Waugh was able to capture the distinct experience of being driven at the early date of 1910 in his novel Howard’s End. His well-heeled characters have a chauffeur, and an inexperienced passenger who is worried that the car might strike something is told to look not at the road but at the scenery:

“She looked at the scenery. It heaved and merged like porridge. Presently it congealed. They had arrived.”

Freeway and motorway driving, which almost eliminates the immediate surroundings and prioritizes the horizon and more distant landscape, is the purest form of this experience. So could it be tuned to deliver a message, in the manner of Burma-Shave? Borden mentions Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, and John R. Myer’s extraordinary The View from the Road, a series of proposals for highway design that imagine structuring the road as a form of narrative. Though a superhighway should not be distracting, if it is overly dull it may induce “sleep, torpor or excessive speed”. There are ways to design in interest. For instance, distant focal points can form destinations, and these can be hidden and revealed in appealing ways. But a road cannot be regarded as a full “story” — the designer cannot choose when the driver enters or leaves the highway, so the narrative must be “interruptible”. It is a novel medium of expression that invites us to see the whole technology of the automobile and the road anew. Following Lynch’s seminal The Image of the City (1960), The View from the Road even proposes a form of visual language to express this new narrative medium.

Now the technology and experience of driving is set to be transformed, again, by autonomous vehicles. As driver concentration diminishes as a concern, we could begin to regard roads as potential for distraction, or even entertainment. An increasing portion of the roads budget should be placed in roadside aesthetics, perhaps unified with the interventions that make roads more legible to autonomous cars. There may be sound social and safety reasons for keeping a portion of passengers’ attention directed at their surroundings, rather than wrapped up in whatever glowing screen they have brought with them.

The heavy landscaping talked about by Appleyard, Lynch, and Myers might be useful when building new roads, or making major improvements to the ones we have — but that will only ever amount to a small percentage of the total. We have the roads we have, some good, some bad, and it’s not practical to rebuild all of them as spectator experiences. But there is more potential than might be supposed. Advanced navigation equipment and geolocation systems mean that more can be made of existing landmarks — at a simple level, for instance, an in-car aural landscape could be created, changing and shifting with a pre-programmed journey to contain appropriate lulls, moments of drama and, ultimately, a crescendo of approach and arrival more moving than the congealing of porridge-y hills. Brian Eno’s A13 Atmospheres and Soundtracks.

More still could be done with physical surroundings. Roadside interventions, along the lines of the Burma-Shave signs, can be imagined — not advertising, but perhaps an encoding of landscape, Christo-like flags or banners relaying decorative information about location and terrain. And we might not need fixed landscapes at all. Drivers and other passengers have other points of interest, other frames for measuring progress, provided by the ever-shifting population of the road. The car slowly gains upon a distant Norbert Dentressangle lorry, eventually reaching and overtaking it; the traffic thickens and thins; coaches operated by the same company flash lights at each other as they pass in different directions on the motorway. A dozen back-seat games can be played on the models and colours of cars. When autonomous vehicles are communicating to optimize drive conditions, could they also tune the general flow of traffic to create interest? Could they be choreographers?

The View from the Road was published in 1964, the year after the discontinuation of the Burma-Shave signs, a succession that is immensely satisfying. In the age of the autonomous vehicle we will no longer have an “experience of driving”, rather we are entering a new era of universal passengerhood. It is time to consider what uses might be made of that experience.

Will Wiles

Will Wiles is a design journalist and the author of two novels: Care of Wooden Floors (2012) and The Way Inn (2014). Both are available in German translation from Carl’s Books.

Burma-Shave by Will Wiles