The story of Smokey the Bear, and how only YOU could prevent forest fires

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The story of Smokey the Bear

Born of an ad man’s imagination, Smokey the Bear becomes #1 force for stopping forest fires (1955)

By William Grigg, Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee) October 2, 1955

Smokey, that cinnamon-colored bear that looks down from the poster and says, “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires,” is the most powerful force in stopping forest fires in the U.S. today, Forest Service workers say.

Old Smokey the Bear - ONLY YOU

What has he done?

He has captured the children. The kids will lecture for an hour if you get careless with matches or cigarettes, today’s youngsters will tell you exactly what that ashtray is for, and what car windows are not for.

Many of these youngsters know more about fire safety than their elders. And no wonder. They sleep with a big Smokey teddy bear; wear Smokey shirts, dungarees and belts; eat Smokey cookies; read Smokey comics; and even take a Smokey bubble bath.

Each of these products carries a fire prevention message, including an invitation to join the Smokey Junior Forest Rangers. About one half-billion children are now members.

Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires

Hopalong helps, too

The list of adult members who are selected on the basis of outstanding fire prevention work, reads like a page from “Who’s Who.”

The list includes President Eisenhower, former President Truman, the governors of most of the states, and a most industrious fire prevention worker and “personal friend” of Smokey, a cowpoke named Hopalong Cassidy.

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The Forest Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture helps establish Junior Ranger Clubs and sends free membership cards and badges to those who request them.

Our most shameful waste - Forest fires

One request came from Pasadena, Calif. In big print, it read: “Would you please send me another Smokey badge? Mine broke… Thank you very much, James Roosevelt Jr.”

A North Dakota girl wrote: “I read that it cost billions of dollars to pay for the damage caused by fires, so I am contributing five cents to help pay for the damage.”

“Smokey Bear has been enrolled on our Permanent Record Cards as a member of the 5-B Class of Agnes Cotton School, San Antonio, Texas.”

One exasperated young girl wrote Smokey, “I have tried to break daddy from throwing out cigarettes from the car.”

One boy went to the top: “Dear Master Eisenhower, I sent for some Smokey Bear things… I would appreciate if you could help me…”

Only you can prevent forest fires - Be extra careful

Mail piles up

Each day, Smokey gets about a thousand such letters. Some have Smokey seals stuck on them in place of postage stamps, but they still go through the mails.

The letters are not all from the U. S. Smokey has reached such places a8 land (Siam), and the Fiji Islands. The Mexicans have adopted and adapted Smokey; south of the border he wears a straw sombrero. “After all this, only a Moscow postmark could impress us,” one Smokey staff member said.

The addresses on the letters are often pretty weird, “Smokey Bear Headquarters, Washington, D.C.,” is the proper address, but the Central Post Office in Washington, D.C., has gotten used to letters addressed to “Smokey, U. S. A.” or “Bear Headquarters; Washington.”


Has big appeal

And the Forest Service likes being “Bear Headquarters.” J. Morgan Smith, assistant director of the Smokey campaigns, who keeps files of outstanding letters, works below a huge picture of Ike holding a Smokey “Teddy” Bear.

Dwight Eisenhower with Smokey the Bear teddy bear

Mr. Smith speaks of Smokey as a “natural”, Children love teddy bears, and next to a pretty girl or a cute baby, nothing attracts adults like an animal, advertising experts say.

But Smokey is more than a good “stopper.” He is always easily identified with his fire message, because he is an animal of the forest and is dressed in the dungarees and hat of a forester.

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A survey by the Psychological Corp. of New York shows that Smokey and his message are identifiable by as many persons as can identify some of industry’s most famous trademarks.

Much of the credit for this belongs to the Advertising Council, a nonprofit service organization of private business, and an outgrowth of the War Advertising Council that helped boost civilian morale during World War II.

Vintage Disney Bambi and Smokey the Bear - Prevent forest fires

Smokey chosen in the 1940s

During the war, the Council helped conduct a forest fire prevention campaign using the slogan “Careless Matches help the Axis,” but at the end of the war, the co-operative, campaigners — the Council, U. S. Forest Service and state foresters — began to look around for a peace-time symbol.

They experimented with Disney’s “Bambi” and several other animals, but these somehow failed to capture the public’s imagination. People sympathized with the animal victims of fire, but deer and squirrels and the other test animals could not be easily identified with the hard work of preventing forest fires.

The campaign officials, in a huddle over the character problem, came up with the idea that a bear might be the ticket. A bear is appealing, yet strong.

Smokey was born.

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Vintage Smokey the Bear - Think think think thanks

The bear idea grew under the skilled brush of Albert Staehle, famed cover artist for the Saturday Evening Post. Commissioned to do a special poster for the 1945 campaign, Staehle painted the bear pouring water on a campfire.

In the poster, Staehle had put a ranger’s hat on the bear, and stuck him in a pair of Levi’s. Foote, Cone and Belding, the Los Angeles agency that voluntarily handles the Council’s fire prevention advertising, felt the bear was “right.”

MORE: See Smokey’s modern-day website

Real bear found

The bear was named “Smokey” after Smokey Joe Woods, a well-known New York City fire chief. Now, Smokey was ready for his debut. In street cars and buses all across the nation, 90,000 cards were installed of Smokey reminding folks about their part in saving the forests.

After five years as a star poster figure in the national forest fire campaign, Smokey, the Bear came to life.

Old Smokey the Bear by a lake

Then, a carelessly thrown cigarette started a forest fire in New Mexico that wiped out 15,000,000 board feet of timber. Unknown numbers of wildlife were killed, and a little bear cub was orphaned.

Rescued from the disaster, the cub was cared for by a Santa Fe veterinarian, who healed the cub’s burned feet. Through the co-operation of the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission, the cub was named Smokey.

Goes to capital

The young celebrity needed new press agent. Newspapers, describing him as “the incarnation of a teddy bear,” kept their readers informed as to little Smokey’s health and diet (pablum and honey mixed with milk). The Washington, D. C., zoo was designated as Smokey’s home.

Smokey is a big bear now — a beautiful, reddish bear that could well have been the model for the poster that hangs in his cage.

Vintage Smokey the Bear - Prevent forest fires (1)


Vintage Smokey the Bear sheet music (1952)

Vintage Smokey the Bear sheet music cover


Comic book page – The True Story of Smokey Bear (1969)

The True Story Of Smokey Bear 1969

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Smokey’s friends don’t play with matches (1970s)

Smokey's friends don't play with matches - 1970s


A true friend of Smokey’s…

… Leaves matches alone / He won’t burn his fingers / Or the animals’ home.

A true friend of Smokey vintage PSA poster 1972

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Repeat after me – only you

Smokey - Repeat after me - only you

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