Josna Rege

61. Burma-Shave Signs

In 1970s, Politics, Stories, United States on July 22, 2010 at 10:18 am


It was June, 1977 and a small group of us in the Boston chapter of the Clamshell Alliance, fresh from our April 30th occupation of the construction site of the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear power plant, decided to do something to draw public attention to the evacuation plan—or lack thereof—for the Pilgrim nuclear plant in historic Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Anyone who has driven to Cape Cod from Boston knows that the bottleneck of Route 3 and the Sagamore Bridge makes for traffic congestion all summer, and if, in the event of an accident at the Plymouth nuclear plant, the area had to be evacuated, it is impossible to imagine anything but total gridlock. People would simply be unable to get away. We thought that the best place and time to drive this point home would be in stop-and-go traffic on Route 3 South at the beginning of the July 4th weekend.

Together we wrote a four-page informational leaflet which Eve illustrated delightfully in cartoon format. But how to increase the chance that people would actually read the leaflets, rather than throwing them in the trash? It was my now-father-in-law Ted who came up with the idea for Burma-Shave signs, a successful and long-running advertising campaign from the mid-nineteen twenties to the early nineteen sixties. A series of small placards were planted along the sides of America’s roadways, each one bearing a few words of a slogan or one line of a verse advertising the product. For example:

Your shaving brush / Has had its day / So why not / Shave the modern way / With / Burma-Shave

We all got to work composing catchy verses to prepare motorists for our informational leaflets. I wish I could find our list, but Ted’s were the most humorous and memorable. One went like this:

Governor Mike [Dukakis]/Few people wish/To have to eat/Atomic fish.

The first day of the holiday weekend started out hot and humid and grew steadily steamier. We headed down to the South Shore in heavy traffic, which obligingly slowed and thickened as we reached the Plymouth area. After planting the signs along the side of the highway at regular intervals, we found a safe place a little further down the road where we guessed that the congestion would be particularly bad. As we had hoped, traffic soon ground to a complete standstill. We were able to move from car to car handing out our leaflets, which were readily accepted by the bored and frustrated drivers, their curiosity already piqued by the Burma-Shave signs.

When traffic began moving again we too moved on, to the beach, where we distributed our cartoon leaflets to sunbathers. Again they were receptive, and we came away with the satisfaction of seeing a beachful of sun-worshipping vacationers engrossed in reading about the worthlessness of the Pilgrim nuke’s evacuation plan. Incidentally, the plan remains woefully inadequate to this day, as a report commissioned by the Town of Plymouth found as recently as 2006, nearly 30 years after our little publicity stunt. Indeed, given the location of the reactor, it is  unlikely that any plan could make it possible for the area to be evacuated in a timely manner in the event of a nuclear accident.

As I write, the Pilgrim nuclear facility (I hate the word “plant”, it sounds so natural) is in the news again. This time, new test wells have found that it is leaking radioactive tritium into the surrounding groundwater. As always, a company spokesman has assured us that there is “no danger to the public.” But our experience and the industry’s performance record warn us otherwise.

I remember one more verse from our anti-nuclear Burma-Shave campaign:

Were Robert Redford/Radioactive/He would be/Much less attractive.


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  1. Harvey! Welcome back from the West and thanks for reading this and commenting. Yes, I feel the same way about that action–it went smoothly from beginning to end and was a pleasure throughout as well, to do creative work with good friends. Good energy. (BTW, I was just going through some old papers and found a few “Over the T” stickers. Remember them?) x J

  2. Thanks for bringing back memories. That was a fun action- glad I could be a part of it.

  3. I still think you were very brave to get involved – your name could have been on some blacklist and there are now apparently many ignorant people who aren’t even from Wasilla who jump at the chance to denounce anything they decide is “un-American”.
    One wonders which “public” they are talking about! Do their children drink that water or swim around those beaches? This sort of thing stirs us all up.
    Good story!

  4. I love your Burma Shave take-offs! What a great idea to use that tactic. I used to love reading Burma Shave signs when we drove from Cleveland to Toronto, in those days a 12-hour trip that now can be done in about 6, I’d guess. I was also at Hampton Beach, not in the actual occupation but in the support demonstration, so you were braver than I. I remember Meldrim Thompson’s helicopter buzzing around overhead. (Where on earth did they come up with the name Meldrim??)

    • I wasn’t so brave, actually. I was not yet a citizen at the time, so decided that it would be wiser to work on support for the occupation rather than doing civil disobedience. (We might even have seen each other at the time, but weren’t to meet until nearly 30 years later!) But there were more than 1400 people who did occupy the site, and at Meldrim’s behest were arrested and locked up in state armories for two weeks, thereby garnering a tremendous amount of free publicity and popular goodwill for the movement.

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