Campaign Hats, Opposable Thumbs and Evil Space Loggers (Smokey Bear)
We dig into the history behind America's favorite topless fire hater.

Smokey Bear is a mythical sentient forest creature with a penchant for wearing jeans but going topless. He has been the official mascot of the US Forest Service (Official Motto: “The Trees… So Many Trees… Everywhere… Who Knew? WHO KNEW?!?!”) since 1947, although he was first introduced on a 1944 poster as part of an advertising campaign for the “Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign,” the world’s least interesting campaign name containing the word “fire”.

Evil Space Loggers vs. The Shrewd Ad Council

[x_pullquote type=”right”]Smokey was the original creation of Harold Rosenberg, an art critic who apparently felt there weren’t enough anthropomorphic bears in modern art…[/x_pullquote]An original story from 1955 depicts Smokey as an orphaned cub rescued from a forest fire, who later after years of grueling martial arts training in the Chinese Changbai Mountains, returns to wreak bone-cracking vengeance on the person who started the fire, only to find out it is his long-lost father, who started the fire in order to save Smokey from some evil space loggers, and from there it gets even more complex and dark. Shrewd Ad Council executives ditched the last, but definitely more interesting part of this back story, leaving Smokey an orphaned cub who pays off his debt to the US Government for saving him by learning how to hold a shovel, point, and speak. Smokey was the original creation of Harold Rosenberg, an art critic who apparently felt there weren’t enough anthropomorphic bears in modern art, who designed it for the Ad Council (Official Motto: “Making That Native American Cry Because Of All The Trash Since 1971.”). He is always featured with his trademark “campaign hat”, leading some ursine¬†biologists to speculate his hair was burned off and he is actually bald.

Only YOU have opposable thumbs

Forest Service worker Rudy Wendelin was the official artist for Smokey, creating hundreds of drawings of the spokes-bear from his debut in 1944 until Wendelin’s retirement in 1973. Wendelin described Smokey during these sessions as “approachable, sensitive, yet with a deep primal mystery he kept just beneath the¬†surface. He refused to pose nude because he did not want to scare the children.” The slogan originally associated with Smokey: “Remember… only YOU have opposable thumbs — for the love of all that’s holy put down those matches!” was replaced with the more familiar “Remember… only YOU can prevent forest fires” in 1947. The word “forest fires” was updated to “wildfires” in 2001 as a reminder that California seems to be constantly burning.

Smokey Bear facts

  • According to the Ad Council, Smokey is recognized by over 95% of adults, 77% of children, but only .02% of bears.
  • Smokey happily celebrated his 70th birthday in 2014 although, due to an ill-advised use of birthday candles, he smashed his cake flat with his shovel.
  • Only two people in the United States have their own ZIP code: Smokey Bear and Chris Christie.
  • A real version of the firefighting icon was designated in 1950 when a burned cub who had survived a forest fire in Lincoln National Forest was named “Smokey Bear.” The cub later successfully sued the Forest Service for negligence and spent the rest of his days in a penthouse suite in Miami.
Photo Credit: Wendy cc

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