Ephemera as Art: Smokey Bear
Hi there! I mentioned in my last Thrift Tales post that I picked up this vintage wooden Smokey Bear ruler for $2.50. Well now I want to show you what I did with it.
I’m a big fan of Smokey Bear, the long-serving mascot of the United States Forest Service and their Wildfire Prevention Campaign. Smokey is a timeless icon, with a simple, straightforward plea that can surely tug at the heartstrings of anyone who grew up watching Bambi! He’s experiencing a recent resurgence in popularity too, for whatever reason. Like “Friends,” Polaroid, or the blue and purple “Jazz” design found on plastic cups in the 1980’s, you never know what out of the past will capture the public’s fascination in current times. Head to Target right now though and you can probably find a Smokey t-shirt.
Despite Smokey’s extended age (he made his first appearance in the 1940’s), I don’t actually find many vintage items “bear”ing his name. That’s probably because most Smokey items weren’t created for commercial use, but for education and public outreach. As a result, most things vintage Smokey Bear fall more or less under the classification of “ephemera.”
What is ephemera? Simply, items that were intended for short use, ultimately with the intention they would be discarded, like many paper items such as cards, tickets, or posters. Ephemera can be fun to find secondhand and, depending on the items, both challenging and interesting to display.
It has been around three years ago now that I went to an amazing estate sale where I found LOTS of cool stuff and among those things were a couple of Smokey Bear educational leaflets. One was a mostly black and white workbook, but the other was this awesome, colorful comic book, “The True Story of Smokey Bear,” from the 1960’s. I found an online upload of if it in PDF form if you want the full contents, linked here.
I really liked the comic, so I decided I wanted to display it in some way, particularly its gorgeous back cover.
I landed on this idea for display and used a 12″x12″ float frame from Michael’s with a hinged door. I chose a piece of scrapbook paper I liked with a coordinating tree bark pattern. To center the comic more in the frame I did attach the front corners to the scrapbook paper with glue dots, which I know may offend some purists, but it was a very tiny amount. The pressure from the glass helps keep the backside from sliding down.
I always thought if I found any other Smokey Bear ephemera I could add it in, though nothing too thick would work. This is not a shadowbox! When I found the ruler I knew exactly where it needed to be.
As you can see above, the wood was fairly dried out. I’ve had wonderful results with Howard’s Orange Oil, so I decided to try cleaning and refreshing it with that. Unfortunately, I was not thinking or being very careful, which I have a tendency to do when cleaning sometimes. I rubbed too vigorously and some of the paint came off. Here it is below just after oiling. You can see later that it doesn’t stay this “orange.”
After that, I did notice a couple of pencil markings on the ruler. I decided to just erase these. No sweat right?
Again, I wasn’t being careful enough. I used a fairly fat eraser and went over Smokey’s design too much.
Between the scrubbing and the erasing, I had lightened things up quite a bit, especially poor Smokey. How could something so simple be going so wrong!
Well, in my camera roll a picture from this project is the last picture before my positive pregnancy test. I had been extremely fatigued at this point. I kept thinking I must be getting sick, but then no other symptoms would ever come . So, I’ll blame my carelessness on early pregnancy brain and I think that’s pretty fair!
The ruler was just a smidge too long to put inside the frame, so I elected to glue it to the border. After playing with positioning I decided I liked the top best. Sorry again to any purists who may be offended by my use of glue! I promise I’m being minimal and reasonable with it.
After all this, the lightening of Smokey was still bothering me way too much. I decided to try touching it up with paint.
I knew what a gamble this was. I went into it with the utmost patience and care, fully mentally prepared for this to go wrong at any moment. I didn’t think I would ever be able to match the color well enough or to actually paint it to my satisfaction.
I think I did a pretty amazing job though! The color looked great and I’m pleased with the tracing I did too. I only used a toothpick and applied it with the slightest touch. I was terrified to do any more, so I just stuck to touching up Smokey himself, who had been the worst affected anyway.
So now I have two pieces to my little thrifted Smokey Bear collection. I’ll keep my eye out for more to add in the future, but right now this little display makes an interesting addition to my office.
I hope this post gives you an idea of at least one way you can showcase vintage ephemera. Happy hunting!