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Times of the Signs

July 2006

Don Dinges '57 never set out to be an expert in Burma Shave lore. On the other hand, for this former Father Catich acolyte who keeps up a sideline lettering business when he isn't serving as chairman of Farmers State Bank of Sublette, Ill., the signs were always there.

For those who don't remember-or weren't born-when Burma Shave signs dotted the nation's country roads, a short primer is in order, courtesy of Dinges.

"It all began in 1925, when the son of the Burma Shave founder was driving through Illinois and saw a series of signs that read 'Gas,' 'Oil' and 'Clean Restrooms,' followed by an arrow pointing to an upcoming filling station," Dinges says.

Back in Minneapolis, the young man, Allan Odell, pitched the idea to his father: advertise the brushless shaving cream sold by the company on similar roadside signs. Dad gave Allan $200 and told him to give it a try. The result produced not only a leap in sales but a roadside culture that lasted 40 years.

A resurgence of interest in Burma Shave signs came in 1994, when Reminisce Magazine ran a contest: In each state, they'd award a set of the 12-by-36-inch red signs with white lettering to small towns on two-lane, heavily-traveled roads, like the original location of many Burma Shave signs.

Sublette was all of those. In fact, the world's largest camping resort sat just outside of town on Illinois Route 52, with upwards of 30,000 campers residing there at any one time. But would that be enough to beat out every other small town in the state?

"Then a woman who'd grown up on a farm near Sublette came forward with the story of how her grandfather had an original set of signs installed on his fence line back in the 1930s," Dinges says.

The mayor and Dinges thought this was a great tie-in, so they entered the story in the magazine's contest, and won for the state of Illinois.

Dinges has since become a Burma Shave authority and has presented on the topic to a number of groups. He has about as many Burma Shave stories as there were once signs. A favorite: The company advertised a trip to Mars for 500 empty jars of Burma Shave. Arliss French of Appleton, Wis., took this literally, collected the 500 jars, and demanded his otherworldly vacation. Burma Shave finally found a way to satisfy him by having its president accompany French on a trip to the German town of Mours-pronounced "Mars."

"French even donned a silver 'spacesuit' for his trip," Dinges laughs.

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