Monday, May 20, 2013

Birth of the Litterbug

Pride Day was over the weekend, celebrated by Lorain County as part of Keep America Beautiful's Great American Cleanup, with hundreds of local volunteers sprucing up their cities. (Here's the story as reported in the Morning Journal in case you missed it.)

That reminded me that I had this article about the Litterbug mascot, which was used by Keep America Beautiful beginning in the 1950s. (Readers of this blog know that I love advertising mascots and their history!)

Surprisingly, the organization did not create or develop the villainous insect symbol. The Litterbug sprang from the creative mind of a Pennsylvanian housewife – Hilda Vogel Fox – and was "loaned" to the national anti-litter organization.

Here's the story as it appeared in the May 10, 1956 Chester Times.

Countian's 'Litterbug' Idea Is Sweeping U.S.

UPPER PROVIDENCE – A blonde, blue-eyed and statuesque housewife on Palmer Mill rd. who talks in a restrained, modulated voice has been heard throughout the nation.

Mrs. Hilda Fox began discussing the "litterbug" in 1951. She conceived the idea of the Gremlin-type insect scattering empty tin cans, cartons, empty match books and pop bottles in gleeful abandon as a dramatic promotion stunt in her drive for litter-free highways in Pennsylvania.

Today her voice is being heard throughout the nation through such converts as William G. Stolk, president of American Can Co., E. J. Condon, vice president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., Richard C. Doane, president of International Paper Co., and W. B. Murphy, president of Campbell Soup Co.

In addition, Gov. Leader last month signed a bill providing penalties for persons throwing refuse from motor vehicles on state highways.

Mrs. Fox learned of Gov. Leader's action, culminating her long and vigorous campaign, when she and her husband returned to their home Monday from a month's vacation in Holland.

Because it was the first vacation her husband Cyril G., president of Fels & Co. soap manufacturers, has had in 15 years, she agreed not to utter the word "litterbug" during the trip. And she didn't either.

When asked her reaction to the new Pennsylvania law, her voice came in flutters" "I can't believe it... It's so thrilling... it's oh, it's wonderful.

She had heard nothing about the signing of the bill.

"I turned "litterbug" loose," she said, "and this is the result."

It's been a long and often discouraging campaign which Mrs. Fox has pushed with the same zeal she showed in 1939 when she started and organized the Pennsylvania Roadside Council, which resulted in establishment of the rustic roadside rests for motorists now dotting the state.

And she put into the "litterbug" crusade the identical energy she spent when she served – from 1951 to 1955 – as chairman of the National Council of State Garden Clubs.

Her husband – no neophyte in organizing and developing programs – says of her: "I'm constantly amazed at her apparent limitless energy."

National impetus was given the campaign of Mrs. Fox last year when Reader's Digest published a piece captioned: "Are You a Litterbug."

"That's when things really began happening," Mrs. Fox recalls.

Shortly after that issue appeared on the nation's newsstands, businessmen and industrialists had their interest piqued.

They organized under the title of Keep American Beautiful, Inc., describing the setup as a "national service organization for the prevention of litter."

And today Mrs. Fox wears proudly on a coat label a silver replica of the "litterbug." It was ordered from a silversmith and presented to her by the president of American Can Co. at ceremonies sponsored by Keep American Beautiful, Inc. in New York City.

It means there's now another team fighting litter in America.

As an aid to motorists, thousands of "litterbags" have been manufactured. Square-bottomed, of stout brown paper, they are for use as one would use a wastebasket in the home.  Service station attendants would empty them as part of their routine. A strong handle allows one of them to be hung easily inside the car door.
Label buttons – the size of half dollars – are also available to motorists backing the clean highways drive.

"The signing of the bill by Gov. Leader," she said, "is the best  welcome home news I've had. After seeing the spotless streets and highways in Holland, it's simply wonderful to return home with hopes of the possibility of eventually seeing the same thing in this country."

Mrs. Fox returned to a table on the patio at her home and plunged into scads of mail – the major portion in connection with the "litterbug" campaign – and was back at work.

I remember the litterbug image from when I was a kid; I'm sure I encountered him on signs or posters at National Parks during my family's cross-country camping trips. (The image at the top of this post was scanned from a 1960s litterbag that I bought on Ebay for a couple of bucks.)

Eventually, though, I'm sure the litterbug mascot became too politically incorrect for the national campaign with his cigarette and eye patch. It seems that many states, municipalities and organizations created their own versions of the litter-tossing insect.

Anyway, back in Pennsylvania – where it all began – the litterbug received a total makeover in 1997. (Here's the story of his redesign.)

He's no longer a total villain; instead, he's been described as more of a mischievous type. Gone are the eye patch, the cigarette, and the pointy stinger, too. He wears a small derby, which I suppose hearkens back to the gangster era. He looks like he's been eating well too.

Large costumed versions of the popular mascot appear at various Pennsylvania events to spread the anti-litter message to kids. 

I hate to say it, but I prefer the original version of the litterbug. He's much more iconic and better designed.

Plus, he might as well be shown smoking. Cigarette butts are still the most common form of roadside litter in front of my house on U. S. 6.


Anonymous said...

I like the old one better too. The newer one looks drunk.

Anonymous said...

Can this logo be used for t-shirts that involve local municipal government clean up days?

Dan Brady said...

Modified versions of the old logo seem to have been used by many municipalities, and I don't see why he couldn't be put to use again. Plus there's no national anti-litterbug campaign anymore so I don't see why not--it would be like a retro tribute.

The newer one understandably is the property of the various PA agencies responsible for him (the PA Turnpike Commission, the PA Dept of Environment Protection and the PA Resources Council).