Give a Hoot: The Interesting History of Anti-Littering Campaigns in America

After recently re-watching a somewhat shocking scene from the hit AMC television show, Mad Men, we have decided to commemorate Earth Day with a fun history lesson about anti-littering campaigns in the United States.

For those who are unfamiliar with this scene, let us paint you a picture: It is a beautiful summers day in the early 1960’s and the protagonists family is ending their picnic.  The children are climbing into the car and the mother/wife “cleans up” by simply shaking the trash from their red and white checkered picnic blanket out onto the lawn of the park.  She folds up the blanket and her husband escorts her to their car without so much as giving the litter a second glance.


The aforementioned scene in GIF form from AMC’s Mad Men

This, as most people over the age of 60 can attest to, is a fairly accurate portrayal of the attitudes of the time, although some maintain that the littering wasn’t quite as blatant as the scene suggests.

Disposable, non-biodegradable items have existed for quite a while with disposable food and product packaging dating back to the 1700’s and the first known mass produced disposable products in America being manufactured in the late 1800’s.  The popularity of those products (such as ladies sanitary items, canned biscuits and paper shirt-fronts) soared due to the need and convenience of the time. Many working class people did not have access to fresh bread to feed their families or laundry facilities to clean their soiled garments after working long hours.

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Products such as these paved the way for manufacturers to create even more disposable goods such as razors, tissues, diapers, paper plates and napkins and more.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, restaurants began opening “drive up” or “drive thru windows” unwittingly creating even more litter when lazy drivers would toss wrappers, soda bottles or cups out of their windows and into the open.  There were, even before these disposable goods, other products being littered such as glass bottles, and mounds of cigarette butts.

Luckily for us, there were some who foresaw the devastating environmental consequences that littering would have even though at the time the cosmetic consequences were viewed as the greatest.

In the early 1950’s, the first known regional anti-littering campaign was created by the Pennsylvania Resources Council in response to the sudden influx of roadside litter.  This was due to the newly enlarged roadways (aka freeways) of the area attracting massive amounts of drivers who, at that time, may not have given a second thought to tossing soda bottles or the mornings newspaper out of their window. Thus, the Litterbug mascot was introduced which would later be used in national campaigns by Keep America Beautiful.

1954 Litterbug Sign

1954 Litterbug Sign

Keep America Beautiful formed in New York City in 1953 in an effort to involve national public sectors in developing a national cleanliness ethic alongside the private sector.  Three years later, they launched the first mass anti-littering campaign in America in the form of instructional signs and educational brochures.

As the years passed and the amount of disposable goods and the widespread practice of  planned obsolescence increased, so too did the challenges of cutting down on litter.  People weren’t just littering by tossing smaller items out into the open, both individuals and corporations were littering in very large ways by “dumping” broken down vehicles and appliances into rivers and lakes, polluting drinking water and damaging ecosystems.

In the 1960’s First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, joined Keep America Beautiful by promoting anti-littering programs.  From there on out, more and memorable national campaigns rolled out, including the 1970’s famous “Sad Indian” television campaign depicting a Native American’s sadness at the sight of litter and environmental pollution.

The anti-littering movement made considerable leaps and bounds since its early origins.  They played a huge role in successfully modifying the behavior of future generations with poignant yet simple campaigns geared towards children such as the popular “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” Woodsy the Owl campaign rolled out by the US Forest Service in 1970.  Thanks to heavy campaigning by these not-for-profit organizations, individual States began passing laws in the 1970’s that would protect the environment by issuing fines to people and companies found littering or “dumping” waste.

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Decades later, when it became clear that simply avoiding littering would not be enough to stop the negative impact that disposable products were having on the environment, many anti-littering organizations such as Keep America Beautiful have launched campaigns and educated millions on the importance of recycling and becoming self-sustainable through “clean” forms of energy.