The venerable Smokey Bear turns 68 this week, and I think we should celebrate with a candle-less birthday cake followed by some defensible space-making and maybe even a quick check of your fire extinguishers. It's what he'd want. To commemorate our nation's fire prevention mascot, let's learn a bit about him.
Smokey Bear came to be in 1944, when the U.S. Forest Service needed a new mascot. Prior to that, Walt Disney allowed the Forest Service to use Bambi for a short time. They chose a bear and named him after "Smokey" Joe Martin, a New York City firefighter who was badly injured during a 1922 fire and subsequent bold rescue.
Shortly after Smokey was created, an orphaned bear cub was discovered in the burned area of a large forest fire in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico in 1951. After nursing him back to health, Smokey was flown to Washington, D.C., and lived out his life at the National Zoo for 26 years. According to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, he was so popular "that he received more than 13,000 letters a week and was granted his own zip code. He developed a love for peanut butter sandwiches, in addition to his daily diet of trout and bluefish."
Over the years, Smokey has had innumerable ad campaigns with posters, postage stamps, and radio, and TV spots, and now a website. In nearly every Forest Service ranger station across the country, visitors will find badges, plush Smokey dolls, flat-brimmed Smokey hats, and books and pamphlets of his remarkable story spanning nearly seven decades. His image and slogans have changed slightly over time, but his message remains the same: "Only you can prevent wildfires." Happy Birthday, old bear.
Visit smokeybear.com for loads of Smokey stuff, including fire prevention tips, kids' games and teacher resources. Take a walk through Smokey's journey, where you'll find vintage posters and ad campaigns, as well as radio spots with Art Linkletter, and TV commercials over the years.