Burma-Shave, Clinton O’Dell and Minneapolis Parks

Thanks to Lindsey Geyer for sending this picture of Painter Park last week.

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The sign at Painter Park, 34th and Lyndale, on September 30, quotes a famous Burma-Shave sign.

Lindsey is probably one of the few people who know the deeper connection between Burma-Shave and Minneapolis parks, especially the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore Wirth Park.

Burma-Shave was an invention of a Minneapolis company, Burma-Vita. It was a shaving cream that didn’t require a brush to whip it into a lather and apply. You just rubbed it on with your fingertips. The company president was Clinton O’Dell. He and his sons were looking for a way to market their invention and hit upon the idea of creating signs to post along highways. They painted their advertising on a series of signs and placed them 100 feet apart, a nice distance to read comfortably for people in cars travelling at the dizzying speed of 35 mph.

The O’Dells painted the signs and dug the post holes for them along highways after getting permission from landowners. This was in 1925. The first signs were placed on highways from Minneapolis to Albert Lea and St. Paul to Red Wing. Sales boomed. The signs spread.

In 1940, letterhead of the Burma-Vita Company featured a faint map with a red dot to show the location of every set of Burma-Shave signs the company had placed.

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Every dot is a set of Burma-Shave signs in early 1940s, long before interstate freeways. It appears that only five states did not have any Burma-Shave signs. (Enlarged by Lindsey Geyer from Burma-Vita Company letterhead from a letter dated May 6, 1940 to the Minneapolis park board. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.)

Sales of Burma-Shave peaked more than a decade later when there were 35,000 Burma-Shave signs. (I haven’t tried to count these dots, but it looks to be considerably shy of 35,000.) They were still being placed along highways into the 1960s, but by then interstate highways and much faster speeds had made the landmark signs a less effective marketing ploy. (Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification program in the mid-1960s restricted advertising along for federal highways, which had a large impact, too.)  The Burma-Shave signs were, however, still a highlight of cross-country car travel in the 1960s. When my family travelled, everyone was roused from whatever they were doing as soon as anyone spotted the first red sign in the distance.

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Silly jingles, mostly touting the benefits — often romantic — of a clean shave, were always followed by the Burma-Shave logo. For a catalog of the jingles visit burma-shave.org.

So what does this have to do with Minneapolis parks? When Clinton O’Dell attended Minneapolis Central High School in the 1890s he had a botany teacher named Eloise Butler. Ms.Butler went on to fame as the creator and tender of a fabulous wildflower garden in a portion of what was then Glenwood Park, later renamed Theodore Wirth Park. First as a successful insurance man and later as the owner of Burma-Vita, O’Dell was a significant contributor to the wildflower garden Butler created. For many years he donated money for work in the garden, but in 1944 he donated $3,000 to expand the garden beyond the woodland garden it originally was. An upland or prairie section was added thanks to O’Dell’s generosity. Several years later, in 1951, O’Dell was one of the founders of the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, an organization that has been critical to the continued success of the garden for more than 60 years. (More info on Friends of the Wild Flower Garden and Clinton O’Dell.)

Thanks to his Burma-Shave fame, O’Dell was named to the Minnesota 150: The People, Places, and Things that Shape Our State, by Kate Roberts, a book by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and an exhibit at the historical society in 2007.

Bottom line: Those catchy Burma-Shave jingles and the ubiquitous red roadside signs were partly responsible for one of the most venerated and beloved patches of Minneapolis park land.

And “Past the school take it slow. Let the little shavers grow” is pretty good advice at any time — even though it had been replaced on the Painter Park sign by Saturday, October 1. In its place was news of a new Zumba class. Fitness is good, too!

David C. Smith

 

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7 comments so far

  1. marge Siers on

    Remember these well, they kept 7 kids fairly quiet on Sunday drives. Do people even go on Sunday drives anymore, or even know what that is ?

  2. Laurie Larsen on

    Thanks for the fun post. I remember the signs well, most probably on Hwy 61 as we headed north to our cabin. There’s a great book about the signs called “Verse by the Side of the Road,” which is available on Amazon.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for your reminder, Laurie. I read a couple excerpts from the book but forgot to mention it. Looks interesting.

  3. Michael Fleming on

    “Sales of Burma-Shave peaked more than a decade later when there were 35,000 Burma-Shave signs. (I haven’t tried to count these dots, but it looks to be considerably shy of 35,000.) ” Since each dot represents a ‘set’ and a ‘set’ appears to be comprised of 6 signs, that would mean you only need to look for about 5800 dots. I actually think the map is still considerably short of even 5800 dots though… :)

    Interesting post! Thanks.

    On Mon, 3 Oct 2016 at 09:44 Minneapolis Park History wrote:

    > David C. Smith posted: “Thanks to Lindsey Geyer for sending this picture > of Painter Park last week. Lindsey is probably one of the few people who > know the deeper connection between Burma-Shave and Minneapolis parks, > especially the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Theodore W” >

    • David C. Smith on

      Either way, that’s a lot of rhymes! Thanks for the note, Michael.

      A friend just noted that he and his sister used to make up their own rhymes inspired by the signs, until they got old enough to make them off-color — when the parents put a stop to that entertainment

  4. Connie Sullivan on

    After World War II my parents in northwestern Pennsylvania used to take vacations with their two small children in car trips, frequently around Lake Erie in New York state, Ohio Pennsylvania, and Michigan (and Ontario). Burma Shave signs were part of how my sister and I learned to read and we loved them. I had no idea that the founder was a Minneapolitan and that I would spend most of my life in his home town!
    Thanks for this pointing out that my parents’ travelling area abounded with Burma Shave signs, unlike some parts of the U.S.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for your comment, Connie. It’s not hard to understand why the Southwest and Mountain West had so few signs: in 1940 the population would have been sparse. But why were there none in Massachusetts and Rhode Island? I wonder if there were already restrictions on roadside billboards there — or if for some reason Burma-Shave wasn’t sold there. Or maybe beards were in vogue there.


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