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Ursine Anniversary

June 2024
1min read

Smokey Is Fifty

Smokey the Bear’s fiftieth year as an American icon is being marked with an exhibit that was launched in February 1994 at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History and that will travel to a number of cities before ending up in August at a gala one-day birthday party in Washington, D.C. Even before the bear ambled onto the scene to remind us that “only you can prevent forest fires,” the Forest Service knew that nine out of ten of all the fires destroying millions of acres of forest and rangeland (thirty million in 1941 alone) were caused by humans—both criminal and careless. But it wasn’t until 1942, when a Japanese submarine managed to land shells near a California forest, that a sense of urgency about protecting needed resources brought the Wartime Advertising Council to plan a safety campaign. The first Smokey was unveiled on August 2, 1944, the work of a well-known illustrator, Albert Stachle. His instructions were: The bear should be black or brown, with an intelligent, appealing, and slightly quizzical expression. Also, he must wear the traditional forest ranger’s hat. A bear by committee, perhaps, but Stachle fulfilled his mission admirably, and thanks to an ad campaign born in the flames of war, that serious but kindly face has enthralled generations of children and brought them to treasure the natural landscape.

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