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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?

Within the already spooky world of mascots, there is a particularly unfortunate category of mascots who demand formal honorific address.  This gallery is dedicated to Mr. Clean, Mr. Yuck, Mr. Met, and other spokesfigures with exaggerated self-worth.  Is it just me, or does anyone else feel unhappy to address an entity whose head is a grimacing baseball or a melting ice cream as “Mister”?

Mr. Softee

The quintessential bully of New York’s ice cream wars, Mr. Softee not only has a repulsive alien head but is accompanied everywhere by the infernal tune “The Whistler and his Dog” (which you have never heard of, but have undoubtedly heard).  [Editor’s note: Even if he is a sentient ice-cream being who betrays his own kind for profit, Mr. Softee’s vanilla ice cream cones with cherry hardshell are delightful.]

Mrs. Adler

Mrs. Adler is a disapproving Jewish lady who only sells kosher goods.  As a special treat, check out this link and judge for yourself whether she is a respected conservative matron or a profane seductress!

Mr. Zip

Mr. Zip was a refreshingly straightforward  (albeit manic) mascot for the US mail back in its glory days.

Mr. Yuk

Mr. Yuk disapproves of the dangerous and disgusting industrial chemicals you just took a swig of.  What was that stuff  doing in an old apple juice bottle anyway?  He looks acerbic but he’ll help you get in touch with new friends at the poison control center (by the way that’s a working number in case this scenario seems familiar).

Mr. Met

Mr. Met is the symbol of the New York Mets—New York City’s other ball club.  Like the Mets, he seems like a lovable troubled underdog at first but is revealed to be an annoying distraction.

Mrs. Butterworth

Mrs. Butterworth is a mother godess shaped bottle filled with corn syrup. She is only respectable in comparison with her with arch-nemesis “Aunt Jemima”.  The two are locked in eternal combat.

Mr. Clean

Mr. Clean projects the comforting authority of a powerful cell mate who will make sure you survive prison in exchange for um, admiration and devotion.  Germs (and other living things) should be afraid!

Ole' Miss

Ole Miss isn’t actually a “Miss” at all but should be good for partial credit.  He looks eager to break some NCAA recruiting rules and perhaps even turn against the glorious union.

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