Smokey Bear has appeared almost everywhere – from print Public Service Announcements (PSAs) to television and radio to several comic book series. But like any proper legend, what breathes life into Smokey Bear is the artist illustrator’s own spin on Smokey’s appearance, meaning depictions of Smokey change quite frequently from image to image, even within the same year. (About the only thing that never changes is Smokey’s classic attire: Hat, shovel, and worn-in blue jeans.)
Throughout the years, artists have chosen to depict Smokey with either an approachable, if not cuddly appearance (a bear children might stand in line to hug), or a stern Smokey, appealing to the seriousness of wildfire danger and prevention. The image is based on the message to be learned and the audience, that is, whether for children, adults, or all ages.
The original 1944 image was created by Albert Staehle. Another interpretation of Smokey came in 1947 by Russ Wetzel and although it was popular, it seemed a bit too humorous for Smokey’s serious message. So in 1948, James Hansen drew a “praying bear,” asking people to be more careful. But the artist most associated with Smokey is Rudy Wendelin, who drew Smokey images for more than 30 years (some of the changes in Smokey’s image are noted in the attached sketch by Mr. Wendelin).
Smokey’s latest depiction is aimed at 18-35 year olds, who have grown up with computer imaging techniques, and is full of life-like qualities and expressions. The newest PSAs show there’s a little bit of Smokey in all of us, and convey we should step in when there’s a danger of starting a wildfire.
While Smokey’s image has changed over the years, one thing has remained the same – his singular dedication to the cause of preventing human-caused wildfires.
Enjoy this look back at the evolution of America’s beloved wildfire prevention icon.