Before Pharrell, Smokey Bear Donned This Now-Trendy Hat As a Symbol of Fire Safety

This is the story of Smokey Bear’s hat, and how it was lost—twice—before finally joining the collections at the Smithsonian

smokey hat
Harry Rossoll, who drew a popular "Smokey Says" newspaper cartoon in the mid-1940s, modeled his sketches after the campaign hat he wore as a member of the United States Forest Service. National Museum of American History

This hat looks like it came out of Pharrell Williams’ closet, or maybe Art Carney’s. But it belonged to a National Forest Service illustrator named Harry Rossoll, and thus to Smokey Bear.

Rossoll, who died in 1999 at age 89, didn’t singlehandedly create Smokey. The iconic fire safety mascot was actually the brainchild of the Advertising Council, who in 1944 feared that Japanese explosives would ignite large-scale conflagrations in the Pacific Northwest’s forests. During World War II, most able-bodied firemen were fighting abroad. The Advertising Council created Smokey to encourage communities to control and prevent blazes in their own backyards. But Smokey transcended his status as a popular public service image after Rossoll began drawing his weekly “Smokey Says” cartoons in the mid-1940s. These illustrations, which appeared for decades in some 3,000 newspapers, soon made the ursid firefighter the nation’s most recognized bear this side of Yogi.

Even after Rossoll retired from the Forest Service in 1971, he remained a sought-after lecturer. Eve Darnell, a PTA officer at McLendon Elementary School in DeKalb, Georgia, invited Rossoll to speak to the students. Because he had modeled Smokey’s headgear on his own wide-brimmed campaign that he wore during his Forest Service days, Rossell showed up that day wearing his hat and uniform.

“He told us the whole story about how Smokey came to be,” recalls Darnell. “He was a very soft-spoken man—very intellectual. He dealt with the young kids in a beautiful way. They were all so excited, and so impressed.”

After his talk, Rossoll lent the hat to a science instructor who wanted to use it for a class play with a promise it would be returned.

The teacher stashed Smokey’s hat in a closet for safekeeping and there it sat for two decades until she retired. She rediscovered it while cleaning her classroom, and handed it over to a horrified Darnell. “I could have just killed her! And myself!” says Darnell.

But the quest to return Smokey’s hat to its rightful owner faltered. “I dropped the ball,” she says with some chagrin, citing busy parenting and career obligations. Darnell stowed away the hat in her home’s attic, and history repeated itself once more: she forgot its existence.

In 2013, Darnell was cleaning out her attic in preparation for a move. Lo and behold, what did she find but Smokey's hat. “That's when I made the determination that I was going to find it a resting place,” she says. “I wanted it to go home.

Sadly, Rossoll had passed away 14 years earlier. After an unsuccessful attempt to locate any of his family members, Darnell donated the hat to the Forest Service. Soon after, it caught the eye of Jeffrey Stine, a curator at the National Museum of American History, who saw in the hat a lasting legacy. “Documenting changes in American attitudes, values, and practices interests me,” he says. “More and more people after World War II were starting to travel, camp or go to a National Park or a National Forest. And so there was this big push to have us not be careless, to take personal responsibility in not starting wild fires. Smokey played a large role in that campaign.” 

Stine acquired the hat for the museum’s permanent collections just in time for Smokey Bear’s 70th birthday celebration on August 8—a much more fire safety-friendly way to mark the occasion than dozens of lit candles on a cake. Smokey would approve. 

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.