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What is Burma-Shave?

On November 14th in 1860 in Coburg, Germany, Gottfried Kirch was the first to discover a comet by using a telescope. On December 4th of the same year, 1,000 kilometers away in Rome, a hen laid an egg that had an irregularity on its shell that looked to some just like a comet. When we perceive recognizeable and meaningful images, especially faces, in random, accidental, or ambiguous arrangements of shapes, lines, and shadows, it’s called pareidolia. It correlates with age and occurs frequently among people with Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Here are three examples of people finding the image of Jesus in pancakes, socks, and apples. 

The first recorded instance of pareidolia in the news was when people found the image of a comet on a hen’s egg. In the retelling, people began to claim that this very special egg had predicted the arrival of the Kirch/Newton Great Comet of 1680. The snag in this claim is that the egg arrived three weeks after the comet had come and gone. Never mind that predicting something ex post facto isn’t a prediction at all. Folklorists like to point to beliefs such as this as shining examples of how folklore carries on in spite of such obvious impossibilities as forecasting something after it happened because it’s a good story. 

How did men shave before razors came along?

Artifacts found by archeologists indicate that around 100,000 years ago, cavemen removed their beards by scraping their faces with sharp-edged stones, bones, and clamshells or by plucking them one by one. The Egyptians used razors made of bronze more than 3,000 years ago.

Stainless steel razors came along in 1860

They needed to be kept sharp because they grew dull quickly. Barbers used leather strops to sharpen the blades, whose edges back in those days were nowhere near as sharp as they are with today’s better metal alloys and better sharpening tools.

The first narrow-bladed folding sterling silver straight razors were manufactured by Sheffield Steel Products in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England

Collectors pay thousands for impeccably restored Sheffield Straight Razors, known for the quality of their steel. Sheffield, by the way, is not only the name of Joe Cocker’s eighth studio album, but also was the setting for 1997 film The Full Monty, a story of unemployed steelworkers who became male strippers to make ends meet during the Thatcher years.

Razor-sharp means the ultimate degree of sharpness

Crossidiomas.com says the first recorded incidence of razor-sharp as an idiom appeared in the New York Times in 1936 when a sportswriter used the term to describe the remarkable accuracy of one boxer’s punches. In time, the term was used to describe perceptive, intelligent, and quick-witted people. Today we use the term to describe an type of blade that has been honed to extreme levels of sharpness.

Better blades were only part of it

Early shaving soaps were whisked with a soft, bristled brush. Along with a bit of water, the brush created a foamy lather that was brushed onto the shaver’s face. The lather soaked into the beard’s bristles, making them easier to cut with a sharp blade. The lather also lubricated the skin, helping the razor to glide across the face. Brushless shaving creams quickly made the traditional shaving mug obsolete.

Then came the safety razors

Until another big change came with the development of safety razors with a changeable single-edge blade. This invention was followed by another: disposable razors that used one fixed blade. In time, marketers brought us double- and triple- bladed razors. These days, Dorco will sell you a seven-bladed razor that they claim is the world’s first.

Clinton M. Odell’s first product was Burma-Vita

Right after World War I, Odell made a liniment and heat rub whose ingredients were said to have come from Burma and the Malay Peninsula. It didn’t sell very well, so Odell hired a chemist to create a brushless shave cream that was applied directly to the face so the company could compete with Barbasol and Gillette. They called it Burma-Shave.

As 15 million Model T Fords took to the roads, roadside signs popped up everywhere to catch the eyes of passing motorists, ultimately leading to the billboard industry.* Below is Henry Ford, with his first car and his 10 millionth Model T. The year was 1924.

To catch the eyes of those millions of motorists, advertisers erected larger and larger signs

Burma-Shave’s novel idea was to use several small signs in a row, tied together with a theme. There were five or six signs to a set, all placed along the roadside, 100 feet apart. This distance was determined to be the most readable for drivers and passengers in cars moving along at 35 miles per hour. The first four or five signs displayed one line of humorous rhyming verse each and the last said Burma-Shave.

The preferred location for Burma-Shave signs was out in the country

Out in the wide open spaces among farms and fields, Burma-Shave’s signs could be seen from a distance by approaching cars. By stretching their messages across six signs, Burma-Shave was able to hold people’s interest longer than a single billboard could. As There were 11 presidents with beards, mustaches, or sideburns. once observed, it was as difficult to read just one Burma-Shave sign as it was to eat one salted peanut.

The Odells put up their first two Burma-Shave signs in Minnesota

They were just outside Minneapolis. One was along State Highway 65, the north-south route between Minneapolis and International Falls. The other was on U.S. Highway 61 headed toward Red Wing. Just before they were bought out, Burma-Shave had 7,000 signs across America.

Today there are more salons than barber shops

This means there are far fewer places where a barber will give you a shave with a straight razor. If you’ve never seen a barber shaving customers with a straight razor, click on over to the Courtney Brothers Barber & Shaving Parlor live web cam, in Blue Springs, Missouri. 

Quiz: How many American presidents had facial hair?

The first was John Quincy Adams, who wore what were called mutton-chop sideburns. The last was William Howard Taft, who sported a handlebar mustache. In all, there were 11 presidents who sported beards, mustaches, or sideburns and none since 1913. Social scientists have determined that facial hair has a negative impact on a candidate’s electability.

Razor-sharp means the ultimate degree of sharpness

In time, the term was used to describe perceptive, intelligent, clever, and quick-witted people. Crossidiomas.com says the first recorded incidence of razor-sharp as an idiom appeared in the New York Times in 1936 when a sportswriter used the term to describe the remarkable accuracy of one boxer’s punches. Today we use the term to describe blades that have been honed to ultra-sharpness.

Bonus

Route 66 runs from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California

Today the reinvigoration of Route 66, one of the first national highways, includes replica Burma-Shave signs along the roadside in Arizona. Here’s a 24-second video, accompanied by Patsy Cline singing Walkin’ After Midnight.

The Everly Brothers recorded their rockabilly song Burma Shave in 1962. Roger Miller has a Burma-Shave song, too. And if you still want more, listen to Razor Sharp, by the Pegboy Nerds & Tristam.

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*In the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson, Lyndon’s wife, campaigned vigorously against this rampant eye pollution. Today there are more than 340,000 billboards in the U.S.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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