The Incredible Origins Of One Of The Most Iconic Cartoons: Smokey Bear

by Shirley Williams
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A lot of people remember iconic slogans from World War II. One of the most famous ad campaigns of the era revolved around a cartoon bear and a slogan that became famous around the world. The advertising campaign that promoted the legendary Smokey the Bear was the result of speculation that the Japanese may launch an attack against the continental U.S.

Fighting forest fires during World War II was more challenging due to the rationing of necessary firefighting equipment. Americans were concerned that explosives could start forest fires that we didn’t have the firefighters or equipment to handle.

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It took the shelling of the Ellwood Oil Field north of Santa Barbara by a Japanese submarine to get state forestry services and the U.S. Forest Service to start cooperating in firefighting efforts. The shelling lasted for approximately 20 minutes and missed the intended target. However, it was one of only a few attacks which took place on United States soil.

U.S. citizens were afraid of what damage could be inflicted on our soil. Since many men who worked as firefighters had enlisted, and fighting forest fires was a local problem, there was genuine concern about potential forest fires.

In 1942, an ad campaign was launched to educate the public about forest fire prevention. The message to the public was that as United States citizens, they could help the war effort by working toward preventing forest fires.

In 1944, another cartoon icon, the Disney character Bambi was the poster child for the forest fire prevention campaign. However, Disney only allowed the character to be displayed on the poster for one year.

The famous illustrator Albert Staehle, who was known for his animal illustrations, created a cartoon-style bear pouring water on a campfire. The character was named Smokey Bear in honor of Smokey Joe Martin, a former assistant fire chief in New York.

In 1950, a bear cub was saved from a forest fire in Capitan, New Mexico. The cub had taken refuge from the fire in a tree and was severely injured. The little bear was cared for by a New Mexico rancher until he could be transported to Santa Fe for treatment. The cub was adopted by the forest service and named Smokey. The bear cub became famous and lived out his life for 26 years in the National Zoo.

Images of Smokey with the caption “Only you can prevent forest fires” became known throughout the country. The message continued to raise awareness about preventing forest fires for 75 years.

When Smokey passed away in 1976, he was buried in Smokey Bear Historical Park, located in Capitan, New Mexico. Smokey continues to be a legend to this day. In 1971, the zoo adopted another orphaned cub named “Little Smokey.” The second bear who was rescued in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico lived until 1990.

The ad campaign also raised public awareness about controlled burns that are intended to keep brush that’s flammable under control. The controlled burns are used to encourage new forest growth. Recent ad campaigns for forest fire prevention have mentioned wildfires in the literature due to concerns about climate change.

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