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  • Happy 75th Birthday, Smokey Bear!

Happy 75th Birthday, Smokey Bear!

Smokey Bear celebrates his 75th birthday this August, and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) will commemorate this anniversary at the National Agricultural Library (NAL) in Beltsville, Maryland, with lobby exhibits and several showings of historical films in its Smokey Bear Theater. Visitors can also take a selfie with Smokey in front of a life-sized mural printed for the event.

The temporary exhibit will be open to the public until the end of August and includes poster reproductions, original sheet music, clothing patches, Milton Bradley board games, stuffed bears, and other trinkets like key chains, pencils, and rulers. Sports enthusiasts may enjoy seeing collectible cards such as one of 49ers Super Bowl XIX Champion Joe Montana standing beside Smokey Bear.

“The Smokey Bear Collection at NAL is likely the largest collection in the world documenting the history of Smokey Bear and containing a large variety of materials,” says Susan H. Fugate, head of NAL’s Special Collections Division.

The complete U.S. Forest Service Smokey Bear Collection is housed on more than 115 feet of shelf space and in 26 map drawers filled with posters, drawings, and other flat memorabilia spanning 75 years. The collection also includes official letters, photographs, and sound recordings, as well as licensed merchandise, including sports pennants, team photos with Smokey, trading cards, buttons, and pins. While only a fraction of the collection will be on display in August, researchers are welcome to make an appointment weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to noon or from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., excluding federal holidays, to see these rare items.

“One of the aspects of NAL’s Smokey Bear Collection that I enjoy is that it thoroughly encapsulates an entire subject,” says Jeffrey A. Maier, NAL technician (and emcee and projectionist of the Smokey Bear Theater). “The archival film footage, posters, memorabilia, cartoons, and other resources create an understanding of Smokey and his campaign more complete and more revealing than anyone would expect.”

Smokey in Artwork

Numerous artists have painted Smokey’s likeness over the years. The first was Albert Staehle in 1944. Staehle is considered to be one of America’s greatest animal illustrators, and his paintings have graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post, American Weekly Magazine, and others. But it’s Rudolph (Rudy) Wendelin’s images of Smokey Bear that are most familiar.

Wendelin, a Forest Service employee from 1949 to 1973, humanized Smokey’s character in his paintings (giving Smokey gloved hands instead of claws, for example) and made him more expressive.

NAL holds 19 oil and acrylic paintings made by Wendelin, most of which can be seen on the NAL website in the Rudy Wendelin Gallery.

Smokey’s History

Smokey Bear was born from wartime efforts to prevent forest fires along the California coast. When Los Padres National Forest was put in imminent danger after a Japanese submarine bombed a coastal oil field near Santa Barbara in 1942, the U.S. Forest Service created the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program to enlist the aid of Americans in forest fire prevention.

A short time later, they teamed up with the Wartime Advertising Council (now the Ad Council) to create a nationwide campaign. Disney lent Bambi to the efforts in 1944. Bambi was such a success that the Forest Service and Ad Council decided they needed their own animal mascot and decided on a bear. Thus, Smokey was born.

Smokey’s original slogan, “Smokey says — Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” was updated in 1947 to the more familiar slogan: “Remember — Only you can prevent forest fires!” The slogan was updated again in 2001 to “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Smokey’s message is the longest running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history. — By Kelly A. Harmon, National Agricultural Library.

Smokey Bear at the National Agricultural Library (NAL)

View the U.S. Forest Service Smokey Bear Collection in the NAL Lobby, weekdays in August, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Directions to the Library

Smokey Bear Theater showings: Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m., August – December 2019

Smokey Bear On-Line Exhibit

Description of the U.S. Forest Service Collection 1902-1996 at NAL containing Smokey Bear materials

More Information:

ARS and You Feature about Smokey Bear

The Story of Smokey Bear at the U.S. Forest Service

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