Odell, Allan Gilbert

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Odell, Allan Gilbert

(b. 6 May 1903 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; d. 17 January 1994 in Edina, Minnesota), businessman behind the ingenious scheme to advertise Burma-Shave brush-less shaving cream with sets of roadside signs whose whimsical, rhyming jingles exploited America’s growing love of the automobile, entertained travelers, and became a popular part of Americana.

Odell was the oldest of four children born to Clinton McDougal Odell, a lawyer, insurance agent, and businessman, and Amy Ford Hamley, a homemaker. He lived all his life in and around Minneapolis and grew up in his father’s family home at 1815 Fremont Avenue South. Odell spent childhood summers at the family farm near Oxboro Heath, Minnesota, to avoid contagious disease epidemics. He was fond of poetry by elementary school. Odell attended West High School in Minneapolis and graduated in 1921. He was captain and starting end of the school’s Twin Cities 1920 championship football team. In his prime, Odell stood six feet, one inch tall and weighed 220 pounds; he had brown hair and blue eyes.

In 1925, Odell graduated with a degree in business from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While in college, Odell broke his nose playing football and then quit at his father’s request. He subsequently lettered in basketball as student manager and was active in the Zeta Psi fraternity. As a college student, Odell worked summers as an assistant game warden to help study beavers in Minnesota’s north woods. Soon after college graduation, Odell met Grace Miriam Evans on a blind date. They married in 1928 and had three sons. During subsequent summers, Odell returned to the north woods with his own family to camp and fish. In 1935, Odell moved to 4903 Bruce Avenue in Edina, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb, where he and his wife lived out their lives.

Odell eventually found a practical, though unconventional, outlet for poetry. In 1924, his father began a company to market and produce a smelly liniment that Odell’s grandfather made. Odell joined the company in 1925. The original plant was at 2019 East Lake Street in Minneapolis. Since the liniment was meant to provide life and vigor and many of its oils came from Burma, the company was named Burma-Vita, meaning life from Burma. However, sales were weak and provided the Odells with little livelihood. To make a more profitable, widely appealing product, the Odells began to make Burma-Shave, a brushless shaving cream, to eliminate the drawbacks of traveling with a wet brush and mug. The formula for Burma-Shave was based upon the original brushless shaving cream from Britain, Lloyd’s Euxesis. After hundreds of attempts, formula 143 gave a nice shave if aged a few months. Original marketing attempts failed, and the company floundered financially. Then Odell, fate, and the popularity of automobile travel came to the rescue.

While marketing Burma-Shave in Joliet, Illinois, Odell noticed a sequence of signs advertising a gas station along the road between Joliet and Aurora, Illinois. He thought similar signs might promote Burma-Shave. Despite initial opposition from his father and advertising executives, Odell persuaded his father to back his scheme with $200. With this start-up money, Odell bought used boards for the first crude signs. The Odells erected ten or twelve sets of signs in the fall of 1925 along Routes 61 and 65 out of Minneapolis. These first signs contained brief statements about Burma-Shave, but no jingles.

By early 1926, the first repeat orders arrived for Burma-Shave. However, the company was still struggling and sold a virtually unknown product. Nonetheless, Odell’s father incorporated the company and quickly sold 49 percent of its stock, which allowed the company to open its first sign shop in 1926 to make signs containing jingles that Odell and his father wrote. The signs measured roughly twelve by thirty-six inches. Each set consisted of six signs eight to ten feet off the ground and spaced 100 feet apart along rural roads for easy reading at normal travel speeds of about thirty-five miles per hour. They were erected by employees known as PhDs, or posthole diggers. Signs were usually placed on land leased from farmers for $5 to $25 annually.

From 1926 to 1948, Odell was vice president and advertising manager of Burma-Vita. By the fall of 1926, the company had spent $25,000 on signs, and sales of Burma-Shave reached $68,000. In 1927, the advertising budget was $45,000, and sales doubled. By 1929, the company had spent $65,000 on signs, and sales doubled again. At its peak, the company grossed over $3 million annually. In 1940, a new Burma-Vita plant was built at 2318 Chestnut Avenue in Minneapolis, into which the company moved in 1941. In 1948, Odell became president and remained advertising manager.

By 1930, when Odell and his father ran short of new jingles, Odell created an annual jingle contest. Winning entries received $100. Some contests generated more than 50,000 entries, such as “If Harmony / Is What / You Crave/Then Get/A Tuba/Burma Shave.” The roadside signs advertised two major themes: Burma-Shave and public service. The latter helped counter antibillboard sentiments. Minor themes included boy-girl relationships, World War II, travel, and farmers. In 1935, Odell wrote the first public-service jingle: “Keep Well / To the Right / Of the Oncoming Car / Get Your Close Shaves / From the Half-pound Jar.” In the early 1950s, the sign campaign peaked with 7,000 sets in forty-five states and made the company appear much larger than it was. It never had more than thirty-five employees, and the signs were erected and maintained by a fleet of only eight trucks. The company used about 600 different jingles.

On 8 February 1963, Philip Morris Incorporated bought Burma-Vita, Odell retired, and his younger brother, Leonard, became president. Later that year, Philip Morris replaced the signs with more traditional advertisements. In 1966, Philip Morris moved Burma-Vita to New Jersey. It was bought out again by the American Safety Razor Company (a division of Philip Morris) in 1997, and Burma-Shave is still available. The last signs were removed from the roads in 1964. That same year the Odell family donated his favorite set to the Smithsonian Institution: “Within This Vale / Of Toil / And Sin / Your Head Grows Bald/But Not Your Chin/Burma-Shave.” Odell died at home of natural causes at age ninety and is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Odell was an ethical, loving, intelligent, and creative businessman and humanitarian who gave to such charities as the Salvation Army and the United Way. He was also a poet who expressed himself on stationary signs, not books, for readers in cars, not chairs. Rather than sell his poems directly, he used them to sell shaving cream. Consequently, he saved his family’s company and gave customers such product-added values as humor, entertainment, safety advice, patriotism, and their own poetic outlet. His roadside rhymes broke with traditional advertising and drove Burma-Shave into America’s culture and memory.

Two books that present the Burma-Shave story are Frank Rowsome, Jr., The Verse by the Side of the Road: The Story of the Burma-Shave Signs and Jingles (1965, 1991 edition with introduction by Robert Dole), and Bill Vossler, Burma-Shave: The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times (1997). Both contain hundreds of Burma-Shave jingles. Whereas Rowsome’s book features many humorous black-and-white line drawings, Vossler’s presents numerous black-and-white photographs of the people behind the company, other types of Burma-Shave advertisements, and the times that made the signs so successful. Vossler’s book contains an index of key words found in the jingles. Obituaries are in Marvin Siegel, ed., The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells, A Celebration of Unusual Lives; The New York Times Biographical Service, 25 (Jan. 1994); World Herald (15 Jan. 1994); the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune (19 Jan. 1994 and 1 Feb. 1994); Omaha (Nebraska) and Arizona Republic (both 27 Jan. 1994); and U.S. News and World Report (31 Jan. 1994). On his 24 January 1994 CBS radio show The Osgood File, Charles Osgood eulogized Odell in rhyme. Burma-Shave’s story is also told in The Signs and Rhymes of Burma-Shave (1991), a fifty-three-minute, color videotape by Sentimental Productions. The video provides interviews with Odell family members, many of the jingles, and a glimpse of American culture—especially automobiles and clothing—during Burma-Shave’s heyday.

Gary Mason Church