Smokey's Sixty-Five Years of Vigilance

By Amanda Ross on August 24, 2009

This month marks the birthday of Smokey Bear, who has acted as conservation messenger and protector of America’s forests since August 1944.  As part of a fire prevention campaign, Smokey’s visage on posters, signs, buses, and television commercials has encouraged Americans to complete the phrase, “Only you…”

In honor of our anthropomorphic advocate, we’d like to share just an abbreviated timeline and just a few of the Smokey Bear-related items present in our archival and photographic collections.

1942 – The U.S. entry into World War II following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor made America keenly aware of the vulnerability of U.S. soil and left the homefront bereft of experienced firefighters, many of whom joined the armed forces. Protection of the country’s forests became a national security matter. With the help of the War Advertising Council, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) Program with the National Association State Foresters and launched a fire prevention campaign.

1944 – The War Advertising Council produced a promotional poster featuring Walt Disney’s Bambi, proving success with animal messengers.

1944-1945 – The Forest Service and War Advertising Council introduced a bear as the campaign symbol.  Illustrator Albert Staehle rendered the forest fire prevention bear, who was given the moniker “Smokey Bear.”

Post-WWII – The War Advertising Council changed its name to the Advertising Council.  Smokey’s campaign was “broadened to appeal to children as well as adults.”

1946 – Forest Service artist Rudy Wendelin developed Smokey Bear artwork for special events, publications, and licensed products.  Under Wendelin’s direction, Smokey assumed the more humanesque form by which he is best known: wearing a solemn expression, ranger’s hat and jeans, and carrying a shovel.

1950 – A burned bear cub survived the Capitan Gap fire in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest and was cared for by New Mexico Game Warden Ray Bell.  The live cub, dubbed “Smokey Bear,” was donated to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he remained until his death in 1976.

This image is one of many promotional photos taken of Smokey in 1950. This bear cub was cared for by New Mexico Game Warden Ray Bell after being injured in the 1950 Capitan Gap fire in New Mexicos Lincoln National Forest. The cub was named Smokey Bear after the character created in 1944 by the Forest Service and the Advertising Council, and donated by the Forest Service to the National Zoo in Washington, DC where he remained until his death in 1976.

1952 – With the popularity of the advertising symbol and Smokey Bear incarnate, Congress passed Public Law 359 to take Smokey out of the public domain and place him under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture.  A licensing program began to control the use and distribution of the name and image of this national treasure.  Ironically, this year also marks the beginning of name confusion: While penning the theme song, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins added a “the” between “Smokey” and “Bear” in order to maintain correct rhythm.  Although his official name is Smokey Bear, the effect of “Smokey the Bear” lingers on.

1964 – At one point, Smokey had four secretaries to answer his mail — nearly a thousand letters a day!  So popular was the bear that in 1964, the U.S. Postal Service issued him his own zip code (20252).

1979 – The Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan opened to the public.

1984 – Rudy Wendelin designed the commemorative Smokey Bear stamp, with its first day of issue on August 13, 1984.

2008-2009 – The Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and Advertising Council launched a new round of Public Service Announcements featuring Smokey Bear along with a redesigned web site and new tagline (“Get Your Smokey On”).

We salute the longest running PSA campaign in U.S. history.  Happy trails, Smokey Bear!

For more Smokey and Forest Service-related memorabilia, see: