The story behind Sparky
After nearly 65 years, Sparky the Fire Dog may be the most recognizable mascot in the world. This retrospective is written by Steve Dornbusch, Senior Project Manager with the American National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
It was 1951, and a loaf of bread cost 16 cents. The population of the United States was around 155 million. Smokey Bear was just seven years old. Harry S. Truman was in the White House and Alben W. Barkley (remember him?) was vice-president. NFPA numbered 13,469 members.
And it was the year Sparky the Fire Dog was born.
He was conceived at the 1950 NFPA Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the association announced that the Advertising Council had approved a national fire-prevention campaign to be launched in 1951, with NFPA as sponsor. The new initiative needed a symbol, and it was a no-brainer. Inspired by the success of Smokey Bear, the burly ursine symbol of the U.S. Forest Service, NFPA decided to create a Dalmatian character, using the dog traditionally associated with the fire service. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sparky has become a national figure and a beloved advocate for fire safety.
Thanks to changing times, styles, and influences in American culture and at NFPA, Sparky’s appearance and personality have evolved over the years. But his commitment to being NFPA’s spokesdog and communicator of life-saving messages, along with his pride in representing the fire service, has never wavered. Here’s a look at Sparky through the years.
Back in his infancy, Sparky sometimes appeared stern and serious, even a bit of an alarmist — perhaps a reflection of the era, with its Cold War tensions and fear of the atom bomb. Sparky was using the tone and style of the time to tap into people’s concerns and fear of fire to reach them.
More so than today’s Sparky, this early Sparky bore a close resemblance to an actual Dalmatian, with a canine snout and a long tail. At the same time, though, he was a bit nattier than the average dog, frequently sporting a tie and button-down shirt. There was sometimes an air of improvisation about his appearance, since style guidelines dictating his appearance had yet to be developed; early costumed Sparkies occasionally had to settle for markings better suited to a leopard than a Dalmatian. Sparky lost his tail sometime in the early 1960s, and while still serious about teaching the dangers of fire, he was becoming less threatening with his messages.
The Times They Are AChangin’: The ’70s + ’80s From the break-up of the Beatles to the end of the Vietnam War to the introduction of the Walkman, the 1970s were a time of profound and rapid change in America, and Sparky followed suit. He started the 1970s pretty much unchanged from the ’50s and ’60s — and then, like society around him, he went through some radical changes. While he continued teaching important fire-safety messages, his entire look changed. His appearance was influenced by pop art and the trends of the times, from bellbottoms to flower-power prints. At times, he looked like something from a pop-art poster, with heavy dark lines, little detail, and simple flat colors. Like a lot of us, Sparky sometimes cringes when he looks back at the fashions of the day.
But as society pulled back from the excesses of the era toward the end of the decade, Sparky also returned to what he was all about: being a firedog. He began to look a little less canine and a bit more like a firefighter, with his Timberland-style boots, cuffed jeans, and suspenders. This new no-nonsense look, which he took into the ’80s, marked the beginning of the current Sparky era.
By the late ’ 80s, NFPA had changed. It had moved from its longtime location in downtown Boston to its current headquarters in Quincy, Massachusetts. Its membership was around 50,000 and growing fast, and the influence of its codes and standards was growing, too. While Sparky was still making occasional appearances as the spokesdog for NFPA’s educational messages, his role had begun to shrink. Dick Van Dyke was doing the association’s public service announcements for television. Sparky seemed outdated, a relic of a bygone era.
But there were a few people at NFPA with the foresight to realize that Sparky still had plenty of potential. It was time to take Sparky out of the dog house and get him back to doing what he did best — teaching children about fire safety. Happily, this renewed interest in Sparky coincided with my arrival at NFPA, and one of my first tasks was to give Sparky a makeover while developing a strict style guide to help him maintain his good looks. Although Sparky had always had “a look” over the years, there had also been a lot of latitude in how it was interpreted. Because we wanted to create a familiar, consistent image for his appearance and his brand, Sparky’s appearance has remained mostly unchanged since his makeover was completed in 1989.
Sparky’s only undergone a few nips and tucks since the big makeover; he’s currently drawn with a lighter, smoother line, to give him a more contemporary look, and he’s jumped on the physical-fitness bandwagon for a more “buff” bod. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he protects that bod with turnout gear that is fully compliant with the provisions of NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. Sparky’s makeover has extended beyond his appearance; it also includes his personality. Although he’s still serious when it comes to his messages, gone is the stern and sometimes harsh attitude that he adopted in his youth. He’s become a kinder, gentler Sparky, emphasizing positive messaging in a way that’s more appealing to children.