Teaching With Documents, Volume 2


Fire Prevention Posters: The Story of Smokey Bear

"I want YOU for the U.S. Army." "Give a hoot! Don’t pollute." "The toughest job you’ll ever love." The U.S. Government has long used advertising to communicate with its people. Over time, the world of advertising has become increasingly sophisticated due to the mass communication capabilities of radio, television, and online services. Despite this evolution, posters remain a powerful cornerstone of many federal advertising campaigns. Through word and image, posters may convey vital information or persuade people to follow a particular course of action. Their content documents concerns and ideas behind historical events great and small.

One of the most successful advertising campaigns ever created began with a Government poster designed more than 50 years ago. Since his creation as the symbol of forest fire prevention awareness, Smokey Bear has become one of the most recognized symbols in the United States. At once firm and friendly, Smokey Bear reminds people that many forest fires are preventable if human beings are cautious in handling fire and smoking materials. Today, Smokey Bear is protected by Congress, has his own staff, and even his own zip code!

How did this bear attain such celebrity? How did Smokey evolve from a World War II homefront poster campaign into an ongoing spectacular advertising success? This article and the accompanying featured documents-two posters selected from the records of the U.S. Forest Service’s 1944 fire prevention campaign-address these questions. The original posters, reproduced here reduced and in black and white, are located in the National Archives Still Picture Branch in the Records of the U.S. Forest Service, Record Group 95. Memorandums referenced in the article are also available at the National Archives.


During World War II, the U.S. Forest Service worked to increase public awareness that America’s forests were vital resources for the war effort. The 1942 forest fire prevention campaign featured grim war-related themes and closely tied fire prevention efforts to winning the war. Posters featuring grotesque caricatures of Tojo and Hitler in front of burning timber included tag lines such as "Careless Matches Aid the Axis" and "Carelessness Is THEIR Secret Weapon."

In 1943 the War Advertising Council used Walt Disney’s Bambi in its fire prevention poster. Woodland animals in poster art proved very popular, but the Forest Service could not agree to the contract terms and royalty payments proposed by the Walt Disney Company for continued use of Bambi. Consequently, the U.S. Office of War Information and the U.S. Forest Service decided to develop an original animal symbol for the fire prevention campaign.

The War Advertising Council designers initially tried squirrels as symbols in the 1944 campaign, as shown in the first featured poster. But some members of the Forest Service believed it would be better to use a larger animal, especially one that "could stand upright and demonstrate forest safety practices." The director of the Forest Fire Prevention Program, Dick Hammatt, in an internal memorandum dated August 9, 1944, envisioned a "characterization . . . of a bear . . . in a green (unburned) pine forest setting" with specified features such as "Nose short (Panda type); color black or brown; expression appealing, knowledgeable, quizzical; perhaps wearing a campaign (or Boy Scout) hat that typifies the outdoors and the woods. A bear that walks on his hind legs; that can be shown putting out a warming fire with a bucketof water." His idea was quickly approved, and the Forest Service commissioned renowned artist Albert Staehl, known best for his Saturday Evening Post work, to create the first bear artwork.

Click the image to view a larger version

The second featured poster, also released in 1944, portrayed the first firefighting bear. This symbol seemed the favored choice, especially to one Forest Service official who confided in a U.S. Forest Service internal memorandum dated September 5, 1944: "I certainly hope they develop and use the bear character . . . instead of the squirrel . . . the squirrel is just a nuisance and a damn rodent to farmers and rural people in many localities." Indeed, those who worked on the campaign wanted to develop one singularly recognizable animal "personality" to represent the Forest Fire Prevention Program, and the bear was chosen. Forest Service officials named the bear Smokey after a famous New York City assistant fire chief, "Smokey Joe" Martin.

When Smokey became the sole official symbol of the annual campaigns, artists paid close attention to his appearance. Forest Service officials decided Smokey should always wear blue jeans. Following heated debate, they reached accord about his hat style. Although subsequent artists rendered a less awkward and more mature-looking bear in the postwar years, Smokey’s hat and pants remained unchanged.

In 1946 the Ad Council was established as a peacetime extension of the War Advertising Council. Its mission was to assure that public advertising would keep pace with the quality and creativity of the private sector. The Ad Council continued to promote the Smokey Bear campaign such that in 1947 two significant events occurred in its evolution. First, someone suggested the slogan "Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires." Initially, many members of the advertising campaign staff resisted this slogan as too mundane. However, they soon recognized its power as an example of a personalized message directly bearing on a national problem. The second development gave Smokey a voice when he came to radio. The deep voice of Jackson Weaver, a Washington, DC, radio personality added resonance when he recorded Smokey’s words with his head placed in a barrel. That distinctive voice became instantly recognized as belonging to the benevolent forest protector.

By 1950 the Ad Council suggested that a live Smokey should be used in television and poster campaigns whenever possible. Later that year the Forest Service located a bear they thought might be right for the job. In the wake of a New Mexico forest fire, local rangers found a singed and frightened North American black bear cub yelping in distress. The cub was taken to Santa Fe where he stayed briefly in the home of the state game warden.

When the terrified bear bit the family cocker spaniel, the warden arranged to transfer the cub to a local zoo. After several weeks, little Smokey was placed aboard an airplane and sent to Washington, DC, where he lived at the National Zoo for 25 years as a living symbol of the forest fire prevention campaign.

The live bear and his poster counterpart received such tremendous publicity that they soon became fixtures in American popular culture, but some attempts to use his image elsewhere did not fare as well. Canadian firefighters secured permission to use Smokey’s likeness on posters in their national fire prevention campaign. To their consternation, the Smokey posters in one area of Ontario were destroyed or his image torn out or defaced with black paint. It soon surfaced that, to the Sheshagwaning tribe of North American Indians living in the region, the Smokey image appeared to be that of an evil spirit who manifests itself as a "bearwalker-person." Posters for that region were reprinted with a beaver in place of Smokey.

Interest in Smokey Bear increased, and concern about misuse or illegal merchandising of his image led the State Foresters Association to appeal to Congress for help in protecting Smokey. Because the U.S. Government cannot secure a patent or copyright for itself, characters and symbols developed by Government artists are in the public domain. By unanimous vote in 1952, Congress enacted Public Law 359 protecting the famed forest spokesbear. The law regulates theuse of Smokey Bear and designates funds from merchandising to maintaining the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention program.

Click the image to view a larger version

Today, Smokey is still recognized as the preeminent symbol of the U.S. Forest Service fire prevention campaign. People in Smokey Bear costume throw out the ceremonial first ball at major league baseball games, schools use Smokey materials during fire prevention week, and print advertisements and posters continue to show that familiar furry face cautioning each individual to use care in the forest. Nonetheless, recent surveys indicate a decline in young children’s recognition of Smokey Bear and his message. To counter this decline, the U.S. Forest Service fire prevention program has decided to return to the simple personalized message and to focus on Smokey once again. They hope that eventually every American will remember "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."

Note to the Teacher:

The Smithsonian Institution, in conjunction with the Forest Service, developed the education kit "Happy 50th Smokey Bear" for teachers of grades K-3. Early elementary teachers can write to the following address to receive this free material:

Smithsonian Institution Office of Elementary and Secondary Education Arts and Industry
Building 1163 MRC 402
Washington, DC 20560

State forestry offices can also provide information to interested teachers. Look for local addresses in the government pages of your telephone book.


Document Analysis

1. Project a transparency of the squirrel poster in front of the class. Using the following questions, help students analyze the poster:

a. What symbols, if any, are used in the poster?
b. Are the messages in the poster more visual or verbal?
c. Is the message clear, memorable, and dramatic? How is this achieved?
d. Who is the intended audience for this poster?
e. Who might the "enemy" be?
f. Is this an effective poster?

2. Ask students if they can recite a slogan and name a forest fire prevention symbol. Then distribute copies of the first Smokey Bear poster. Discuss with your students the origin and evolution of Smokey Bear. Apply the same analytical questions to the Smokey poster as to the squirrel poster. Ask your students if they agree with the Forest Service official’s assessment of the squirrel symbol.

Learning Activities

3. Locate a recent picture of Smokey, and ask your students to identify the changes in Smokey’s appearance from his first posters. Record responses on the chalkboard. Ask students why they think these changes were made. Can they identify other popular symbols or figures that have evolved (e.g., Mickey Mouse, the Campbell’s Soup Kids, the torch-bearing Columbia Pictures woman, Uncle Sam, Morton’s Salt girl)?

4. Assign a student to write a description of a famous team mascot or national symbol without explicitly naming it. Have one student read the description while another student draws a picture on the board. Members of the class should try to identify what famous symbol or character is being portrayed.


5. Ask a student to research the origin of your school mascot, including how it was chosen, changes in its design, whether it is an appropriate and effective symbol, and by what process it could be changed. Ask the student to present the research to the class.

6. Assign students to research an issue of concern in your school, local community, state, nation, or world. Students should then design a poster to address their topics and present the rationale behind the poster to the class. By consensus, decide which posters are most effective.

7. Some athletic teams have come under criticism for having culturally insensitive names, mascots, and symbols. Assign students to research and then debate this topic.


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Chicago: "Fire Prevention Posters: The Story of Smokey Bear," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 189–193. Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YLTK88L8GUWGXN.

MLA: . "Fire Prevention Posters: The Story of Smokey Bear." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 189–193. Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YLTK88L8GUWGXN.

Harvard: , 'Fire Prevention Posters: The Story of Smokey Bear' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.189–193. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YLTK88L8GUWGXN.