Scanning Around with Gene: The Art of Fire Prevention

In 1968 when I was 12 my school took part in a city-wide competition where students produced small posters promoting fire safety. Despite my complete lack of ability as an illustrator, I managed to crank out a crude but winning entry which depicted a young man with long hair sitting on a sofa, smoking a cigarette (it was tobacco – I don’t think I knew of any other sort of cigarette at the time). Nearby a small fire was starting in the waste basket where he had tossed his still-lit match. The caption read “Don’t be a Careless Hippie.” Hey, it was 1968.

Teaching kids about fire safety is an age-old process and local fire departments often supply schools with educational pamphlets on the benefits and dangers of fire. We all learned about the combination of heat, fuel, and oxygen that leads to fire, and what to do in case of fire in the home or elsewhere. Today’s images all come from two fire-prevention pamphlets produced by The National Board of Fire Underwriters, a group of insurance companies. Click on any image for a larger version.

Most fires, we learn, are caused by carelessness – you have to be vigilant with such a powerful tool. It only takes a second for fire to get out of control.

My hippie friend fell victim to one of the major causes of fires – smoking cigarettes. I have to believe that as smoking has decreased, so have fires.

When the fire department came to visit my school it was always fun because in addition to getting out of regular class work, they usually showed a short film, which was a big deal in those days. We learned to check the door for heat before opening it, and how to roll on the floor to put out flames.

It wasn’t too hard to get the basics of fire prevention down – watch out for sources of combustion, be careful with open flames, and don’t overload the electrical circuits.

My mother, a hard-core smoker, was concerned with fire to the point of obsession. It was not uncommon for us, after leaving the house to go to the market or on some other errand, to return a few minutes later to double-check that all the cigarettes were completely out and that the stove was turned off.

We were taught at a very early age not to play with matches under the threat of severe punishment. On the Fourth of July we were allowed to try lighting matches under supervision, but the rest of the year they were strictly off limits.

Fortunately we never had a fire at my house and my mother made it as a smoker until age 91 without incident. And though I did grow up to be a bit of a hippie, I never took up smoking myself, so didn’t have to worry about that aspect of fire prevention.

I’ll end with an image of that great fire preventer Smokey Bear, and a promise to look more at the imagery of Smokey in a future installment. This year Smokey turns 65, but he’s far from retiring.

Posted on: May 25, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

3 Comments on Scanning Around with Gene: The Art of Fire Prevention

  1. With wildfires and dry terrain (especially this year), we’re ripe for a whole new era of fire-prevention graphics. I haven’t seen them appearing anywhere yet!

  2. Oh, the stove! It’s a running joke in our family — before leaving the house for any extended time, someone will say “off, off, off, off, OFF!” My mother-in-law did that routinely, out loud, checking the 5 knobs on the gas stove before departing. Once they were halfway to a vacation weekend on the Gulf Coast, and she told my father-in-law, “Oh jeez, Nick, I think I left the stove on.” They went back. She hadn’t. But she said it loud before leaving again – “Off, off, OFF, OFF, OFF! “

    (by the way, several previous comments appear to be spam. Wish I could turn THEM off off off off off.)

  3. …and to find out if any recent examples reflect the broad revisionism in the understanding of ‘natural’ fire that has been going on over the past decades. And that limp Bambi in the last image was overdue for revamping even then.

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