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If you are looking for poison control center and have arrived here by some dreadful search engine mistake you should call 1-800-222-1222 (presuming you are in the United States).  If you are not in the United States here is the World Health Organization’s interactive map of worldwide poison control centers.  Quick! Don’t wait around here!

OK, now that they’re getting the help they need, we can delve into today’s post which concerns the ambiguity of iconography–more specifically this is the history of poison control mascot, Mr. Yuk, an icon of Generation X childhood.

Since at least the nineteenth century, chemical manufacturers have used skulls, skeletons, and crossbones to label poisonous compounds.  In fact for a while toxic substances were sold in cobalt blue glass skulls (which you can probably still find at an antique shop).  By the twentieth century, the skull and crossbones was almost universally known as the symbol for poison—and it still is—well, except in Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh had a problem: their famously up-and-down professional baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, were inextricably linked to the Jolly Roger an age-old symbol of pirates.  The Jolly Roger is basically a poison label, but it was plastered all over all sorts of Pirates merchandise.

Dr. Richard Moriarty, a Pittsburgh pediatrician and poison center pioneer, saw the skull and bones everywhere in Pittsburgh and was worried that children would be confused.  Even beyond Pittsburg, the world is filled with pirate themed Halloween candy and Long John Silver’s marketing and thoughtless graphic art.  Moriarty proposed a new poison label which would speak more directly to children.

The art for Mr. Yuk was created by Wendy (Courtney) Brown, a grade school student who won a drawing contest.  Wendy’ original conception was altered somewhat to make the character more vivid–the stick figure body was chopped off and only a grimacing head remains.  The poison control team chose acid-green as the color for their mascot by finding which color least appealed to children.  One young study participant described the overall effect as “Yucky” and the name stuck.

Today “Mr. Yuk” is the exclusive intellectual property of Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital, but they no longer release sheets of stickers (which were omnipresent back in my childhood).  Times change, and a new crop of market researchers have shown that kids are drawn towards Mr. Yuk stickers simply because they are stickers.  Plus a few restless generations of toymakers and marketers have demystified the green color and the sour face.  Even Mr. Yuk’s name conveys less force in a multi-cultural world—maybe he’s just Tibetan or something.  Of course the skull and crossbones still has problems too.  Since the 1970’s there are even more pirate teams running around (to say nothing of the computer pirates and Disney pirate-theme franchises which have burgeoned since then).  It’s a real problem: what should the personification of poison be.  How does a toxic mascot stay toxic as our symbols and color change meanings?

Um, Don’t eat this poisonous sword-flag?

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