Events in Manitoba History: Elmer the Safety Elephant
The cartoon character of Elmer the Safety Elephant was invented in Toronto, in 1947, to help reduce the incidence of accidents between cars and children. Safety officials in Toronto worried that, as traffic levels increased following the Second World War, the number of children who would be injured would increase. Lectures from teachers and police officers did not seem to have the desired effect. Instead, they introduced Elmer and, in the very first year, the number of accidents decreased by 44 percent.
The idea was that Elmer would emphasize a few basic traffic safety tips that children would memorize and never forget, based on a widely-held belief that “elephants never forget.” When Elmer was introduced in 1947, there were five basic safety rules:
Elmer’s sixth rule, that you should always walk on the left-hand side of the road, facing oncoming traffic, was introduced in the 1960s. A seventh rule, to always wear a seat-belt in the car, was added in the 1980s as seat belts became more common.
Kinsmen Clubs across Canada took up the idea and promoted it throughout the country. Here in Manitoba, the first place to introduce Elmer was the City of Brandon, in 1952. There, the Chief of Police went to local elementary schools and introduced the basic premise. Each school would be given a triangular green pennant featuring a picture of Elmer. The pennant would be raised on the school’s flagpole and stay there as long as no child was involved in a traffic accident. If an accident did occur, the pennant would be lowered to half-mast (or, in later times, taken down altogether) for periods ranging from 15 days, to 30 days, to an entire year. All children in the school would attend a pennant-lowering ceremony so it would impress on them the importance of following Elmer’s rules.
Elmer came to Winnipeg in 1955 but he did not expand province-wide until the early 1960s with support from the provincial government. Anyone who was attended elementary school in Manitoba in the 1960s probably remembers being introduced to Elmer’s rules. But there are two additional aspects of the traffic safety story that are unique to Manitoba.
Elmer the Safety Elephant was drawn in 1952 by a cartoonist named Charles Thorson. Born in Winnipeg of Icelandic immigrant parents, Thorson worked as an artist, drawing illustrations for the Eaton’s catalogues until the mid-1930s when he moved to Hollywood and worked as a character designer for Walt Disney. He is credited with creating Snow White, based on a Winnipeg waitress he met in the 1920s, and six of the seven dwarves. (The seventh dwarf, Dopey, came later.) Thorson later worked for Warner Brothers Studios, where he created the characters of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and he thought to have played a role in the creation of Popeye and Mighty Mouse. He returned to Winnipeg in the 1940s, and to doing artwork for Eaton’s and others. His collection of artwork, including hundreds of watercolour, pencil, and ink sketches from his time in Hollywood, is held by the University of Manitoba Archives.
In 1936, a young woman named Louise Staples was teaching at Greenway School on St. Matthews Avenue. She worried about the safety of her pupils as they crossed the busy street. She enlisted some older students to help guide the younger students across the street and the idea proved so successful that it led to a national program, the Canadian School Safety Patrols program. School patrols still exist today and are a testament to this forward-thinking Manitoba teacher. From 1936, until 1963 when Elmer the Safety Elephant went province-wide, no child in Winnipeg was killed going to or from school, and fewer than five were injured in traffic accidents, thanks in large part to school patrols and to Louise Staples.
“Elephant symbol will keep school children remindful of safety rules at all times,” Brandon Sun, 12 November 1952, page 15.
“Elmer to teach children safety,” Winnipeg Tribune, 19 October 1956, page 23.
“Elephant gets results where teachers fail,” Winnipeg Tribune, 19 September 1963, page 3.
“Sgt. Joe remembers a tragedy,” Brandon Sun, 18 October 1967, page 49.
“Happy birthday Elmer,” Brandon Sun, 16 October 1987, page 13.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 25 April 2020