Only you can prevent forest fires, but only Smokey could help us topple the Axis powers.
Forest fires posed a terrifying threat during World War II. Fighting wildfires required huge chunks of precious manpower that otherwise could have been utilized for building tanks or guns. Infernos also swallowed up thousands of acres of wood, a crucial ingredient in everything from warships to gunstocks.
To curb forest fires, the U.S. Forest Service and the War Advertising Council teamed up on a propaganda campaign. Walt Disney loaned the government the use of Bambi for a year to get things rolling, but the Forest Service wanted their own anti-fire mascot. Commercial illustrator Albert Staehle drafted an image of a shovel-toting bear. It took a few drafts, but after some government-mandated tweaks—including making the bear wear pants—Smokey was born.
When Smokey debuted in 1944, his first posters bore the slogan “Smokey says—Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” Although the words weren’t as catchy as the venerable “Only YOU can prevent forest fires”— a line he picked up in 1947—the character resonated with the public. Soon, Smokey was showing up on billboards and in magazines, and Americans became a bit more careful with their campfires and cigarette butts.
When forestry workers rescued a bear cub from a New Mexico wildfire in 1950, the Forestry Service adopted the cub as the living version of Smokey. The bear received so much fan mail that in 1964 he got his own ZIP code (20252). Today, the Department of Agriculture pulls in more than $1 million a year licensing Smokey’s likeness, all of which goes to—you guessed it—fire prevention programs.
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!