Happy Birthday Smokey Bear: The True Story of An American Icon

Today is the official birthday of one of America’s favorite civil servants: Smokey Bear. As America’s longest running public service ad campaign Smokey has, for seventy five years, been reminding children and adults alike that it is exclusively our responsibility to practice fire safety in wilderness areas. Or as the classic ad campaign succinctly puts it:

Image result for only you can prevent wildfires

Though Smokey was originally conceived in August 9, 1944 by Albert Staehle, the familiar phrase above began in 1947. This direct and simple message has been pretty consistent since then. The only slight difference is that in 2001 “forest fires” was changed to “wildfires” in order to better emphasize that fires occur in areas other than forests and that some fires are controlled or preventative and good for forest development. Some researchers have even pointed to how the “smokey bear effect” has lead to larger wildfires caused by the over zealous campaign against fire prevention.

Smokey | Only You Can Prevent Wildfires

Though his message has mostly remained the same, over the years Smokey’s appearance and persona has changed quite a bit. In his debut poster from October 10, 1944, the fire preventing mascot is a little more squat and rotund than the tall and burly bear we are used to:

Though already donning his trademark pants and ranger hat (without a shirt of course), Smokey has yet to develop his catchy command.

But by the 1950’s Smokey takes up his shovel and starts working on his dad bod, becoming the familiar icon we all recognize today:

Image result for smokey bear

In recent years the Forest Service has attempted to keep the bear modern and relevant (Smokey has his own website, instagram, and twitter page). Accompanying his digital presence is a digital persona, often depicted as just a floating head:

But before Smokey went digital, he was a real bear! After a wild fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico in 1950 an orphaned and injured bear cub was discovered in the devastated forest. After being rescued by soldiers (who narrowly survived the fire themselves) and nursed back to health, this bear was named Smokey and flown to the National Zoo in Washington DC. The True Story of Smokey Bear, a comic book issued by the USDA Forest Service in 1969, tells the story:

Cotsen 7019932, front wrapper


Cotsen 7019932, p. [9]

Cotsen 7019932, p. [13]

Though not quite the “true” story of Smokey, since the character was invented six years earlier by the Fire Service, the real life Smokey helped contribute to the ad campaign and further raise awareness of fire prevention until his death in 1976.

The “real” Smokey after his being rescued. Who wouldn’t take this little guy’s advice?

Smokey’s most memorable contributions and lasting impressions probably endure because of the ad campaign’s chief target audience: children. Appearing in numerous radio and television appearances (as a real bear or a cartoon) and all kinds of publications issued by the US Department of Agriculture, Smokey influences generations of American children. This media is of course designed to make fire prevention memorable and fun, such as the Activity Book for Smokey’s Friends (Washington: USDA Forest Service, 2004) featuring a classic rebus for children:

Cotsen 153793, front wrapper

Can you solve the puzzle? Cotsen 153793, p.[6]

To learn more about the history of Smokey Bear, fire prevention, and find activities for children visit: smokeybear.com


Cotsen 7019932, back wrapper

Pizza Picture Books

Children should eat less pizza, according to the American medical profession.  Unless they can be coaxed into consuming pizza with more kale and less cheese…  But like junk food, pizza can be enjoyed in a picture book instead of on a plate!

Jan Pienkowski. Pizza! A Yummy Pop-up. Paper engineering by Helen Balmer and Martin Taylor. (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, c.2001). Promised gift.

To some illustrators, the idea of making a pizza is an invitation to collaborate with paper engineers.  Some animals put pizza on the menu when the king of beasts announces that he is dropping by for lunch.  A penguin kneads the dough with his  feet, thanks to a pull-tab.  Other moving parts make it possible for the kitchen crew to sprinkle over the dough “creepy, crawly, tasty toppings” like caterpillars, bugs, tadpoles, worms, and a peppy frog.  A flap lets the polar bear and mouse pop the pie into the oven and close the door.  Too bad the pizza doesn’t fill up the lion…

William Boniface, What Do You Want on Your Pizza? Illustrated by Debbie Palen. (N.p.: Price Stern Sloan, c2000). Promised gift.

This unusual board book lets children “order” a slice from the pizza man. The laminated pages are so deep that they have recesses in the shapes of all the different toppings.  Readers can follow the suggestions for finishing the pie in the text or put what they like on it, helping themselves to the pepperoni, anchovies, and veggies in the plastic box attached to the inside of the rear board.

Cover illustration by Roberta Holms for Pizza Math (Alexandria, VA: TimeLife for Children, c1992) Promised gift.

Believe it or not, Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested using waffles to teach children mathematical concepts. His spirit lives on in the “I Love Math” series, which tries to make the subject “a hands-on, interactive learning experience” by inventing “entertaining characters” and placing them in scenarios that “invite your child to solve math challenges.”  One of the activities in Pizza Math  is a board game called “Tic-Tac-Pizza” printed on the rear endpaper.  Ask mom for some macaroni and jelly beans and play along with the octopus in a chef’s toque and a cat in a trench coat and pink heels.

Endpapers by Sharron O’Neil.

The game Pete’s parents invented to distract him the day the ball game with his friends was rained out looks like a lot more fun than “Tic-Tac-Pizza”  and it was tested extensively by William Steig on his youngest daughter Maggie.

William Steig. Pete’s a Pizza. (New York: Michael di Capua Books, HarperCollins, 1999, c. 1998). Promised gift.

Dad picks up his sulking son off the couch and plops him down on the kitchen table so he can be made into a delicious pizza!  Once the “dough” has been thoroughly kneaded, then it is tossed into the air and stretched into a translucent circle.

Now the “pizza” can be topped with “tomatoes” (checkers) and “cheese” (bits of paper) before it is put in the “oven” (the sofa).  But by the time it is nice and hot, the sun has come out and the “pizza” runs outdoors to find his friends.

 For some people, the only thing better than eating pizza, is being one!