Research, patience solve 80-year-old Burma-Shave mystery

By Robert D. Rentzer

Well, to be absolutely accurate, the mystery would not have existed in 1932 for anyone who could read Yiddish, Chinese or Greek, but it sure existed at least 50 years ago when Frank Rowsome Jr. compiled information for his authoritative book, “The Verse By The Side Of The Road” (ISBN 0-8294-0038-8). That 1965 publication contained every jingle used on the historic Burma-Shave signs that dotted the highways and byways of America from 1927 through 1963. And the mystery was perpetuated when, in 1997, Bill Vossler published his equally authoritative book entitled, “Burma-Shave The Rhymes, the Signs, the Times” (North Star Press, ISBN 0-87839-122-3).

Burma-Shave Bench Back

Probably stationed outside a barber shop, this bench back measures 50 inches by 14 inches and proclaims “Whisk-Her Away with Burma-Shave.” Apparently, a fellow by the name of Roy was even kind enough to carve the year (41) into the bench back at the lower right (beneath the “e” in “Shave”), effectively circa-dating the seldom-seen Burma-Shave collectible. Photo courtesy Rentzer Family Collection.

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“ROY 41″ carved into the Burma-Shave bench back, which currently resides in the Rentzer Family Collection. Photo courtesy Rentzer Family Collection.

First, a little background for those readers not familiar with the unique advertising campaign for a new and innovative product: a brushless shaving cream. And the product ads themselves were also an innovation appearing on six sequential wooden planks placed just off the road, at motorist eye level about 250 feet apart, eventually evolving from simple messages to catchy jingles. It was those jingle signs that became American icons, compelling one to read all the signs until the last, which sported the product name: “Burma-Shave.”

One example of the effective jingles and which not only proved prophetic but which captures the history of the product itself, is this 1930 jingle:

SHAVING BRUSHES /
SOON YOU’LL SEE ‘EM /
ON THE SHELF / IN SOME /
MUSEUM / Burma-Shave

Significantly, of the two authoritative books that had been written containing all of the jingles, and as to all later attempts to set out all those jingles, both in hard copy as well as on the internet (burmashave.org), the first three boards of one particular sign set remained unknown. That 1932 sign set has never appeared (until now) other than as:

(Hebrew)
(Chinese)
(Greek)
THE BEST SHAVE
IN ANY LANGUAGE
Burma-Shave

Through a stroke of good fortune, and by doing a good deed as an avid Burma-Shave collector, I now hold one such sign and the answer. The good deed was to provide some gratuitous information to an eBay seller who was offering an orange and black Burma-Shave sign (for a short while the Burma Vita company alternated the familiar and best remembered red and white signs with orange and black to signify when a new jingle came out). After advising the seller of the year of the single sign he was offering, as well as providing the complete jingle his sign came from, the seller (Matt Reed of Martinsburg, Pennsylvania) responded with a “Thank You,” and an inquiry as to another sign in his possession, which he purchased at a garage sale in Woodbury, Pennsylvania. That inquiry not only resulted in resolving the age-old mystery as to the content of the three long-forgotten lines, but also resulted in the acquisition of the actual first sign itself, which Matt graciously agreed to sell and which is now revealed for all to see in the photograph below.

YiddishBurmaShaveFrontwb

Front of Yiddish Burma Shave sign. Photo courtesy Rentzer Family Collection.

YiddishBurmaShaveBackwb

Back of Yiddish Burma Shave sign. Photo courtesy Rentzer Family Collection.

So you finally know what the first of the missing signs said, or, more accurately, at least you now know what that sign looked like. As for what that sign actually said (the Chinese and Greek signs likely saying the same thing), unless either of those two signs turn up, one final mystery remains to be solved: To know what the signs actually said in their respective foreign languages. That is because the middle word of the sign in the photograph remains somewhat illusive.

_Drinkingwb

The dangers of drinking and driving emerged as a familiar theme on Burma-Shave sign series. This one warns: “Drinking Drivers / Nothing Worse / They Put / The Quart / Before the Hearse / Burma-Shave.” This complete Burma-Shave Drinking Drivers sign set dates to 1959. Each measures 40 inches wide by 17 inches high. Photo courtesy Rentzer Family Collection.

Although everyone agrees the sign is actually written in Yiddish (not Hebrew), and although everyone also agrees that the first word is “A” and the last word is “shave,” the agreement ends there. That is because some folks suggested the middle word was “smooth,” while some others believed the middle word was “close.”

And there was yet a third translation thanks to The Yiddish Academy (www.yiddishacademy.com and www.yiddish-translation.com). “Shmelke,” of that organization, for various well-considered reasons, completely discounted the word “smooth,” was dubious about “close” and suggested the word might actually be “good.”

After a consultation with a cousin (Richard Delson) and a very dear friend (Jennifer Shoshana Elbogen), a trip to the Jewish Home For The Aging in Tarzana, California, resulted in the hospice Chaplain, Amy Altshuld, showing a photo of the sign to an elderly resident who read the sign as, “A good show” (sic). So “good” was in the lead, until Shmelke studied the sign further and then wrote back concluding the word was, in fact, “close.”

Referring to pronouncing the middle word, he wrote, “It’s just a slangy way of writing ‘close.’ Technically, it’s ‘nuenter’ not ‘nuter’ but that’s what it sounds like when you say it fast.” And Burma Vita did use their concept of a close shave as a pun a few years later, when in 1935 they posted this jingle:

KEEP WELL / TO THE RIGHT /
OF THE ONCOMING CAR /
GET YOUR CLOSE SHAVES /
FROM THE HALF-POUND JAR /
BURMA-SHAVE

Yiddish word

Yiddish word for “smooth.”

So adopting Shmelke’s philosophy, who also wrote and made a very good point when saying, “understand that true translation is not literal when you make your Burma Shave calculations. It should be ‘in the spirit, not the letter’ of the jingles,” you can decide for yourself, but this author is opting for “smooth,” because a search of an on line English to Yiddish dictionary, by my cousin Richard Delson, produced the results shown at left for the word “smooth,” which looks very much like our sign, the only difference being in the order of two characters. The one looking like “U” and the one looking like an “X” being reversed on the sign thus suggesting a simple mistake since Yiddish is read right to left rather than left to right. So:

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This political view series of orange and black Burma-Shave signs dates to 1948. Each sign measures 40 inches by 12 inches. If you have the space, hanging serial signs from rafters is a good display choice; it allows for viewing and enjoyment, while keeping the signs out of harm’s way. Photo courtesy Rentzer Family Collection.

A SMOOTH SHAVE (Hebrew Yiddish)
A SMOOTH SHAVE (Chinese)
A SMOOTH SHAVE (Greek)

About the contributor: Robert Rentzer began his career as Bob Dennis appearing on live TV, Broadway and then touring the U.S. in the Broadway show. When the show closed he moved to California to continue acting. He interrupted his acting career to marry, raise a family and enter law school. After graduating he became a Deputy District Attorney before going into private practice. (See more about Rentzer’s legal career by visiting www.lawcal.com.) Rentzer now divides his time between law, acting, and writing, including a book about an intriguing true account of a bizarre murder case he once prosecuted that he hopes to have published. Robert Rentzer can be reached at (818) 521-5000.

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