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