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The Smurfs craze of the 1980’s

Smurf village

The Smurfs, a comic and television franchise, centered on a group of small blue funny talking creatures called Smurfs. Popular in the 1980’s, they appeared on television, t-shirts, miniature models, games, burger boxes, and in toy stores throughout the United States. Many may not know it, but the Smurfs were created over a decade before their surge to success.

The creation of the Smurfs

Pierre Culliford, the creator of the Smurfs at his drawing desk

The name “Smurf” is a Dutch and English translation of the French word, schtroumpf (meaning salt). The name came from a dinner conversation between The Smurfs writer and artist, Peyo (Pierre Culliford) and a friend. The two were eating when Peyo asked his friend to pass the salt. Forgetting the English word for “salt”, Peyo substituted the French translation, schtroumpf. The friend passed the schtroumpf to him and jokingly said, “Here’s the Schtroumpf “” when you are done schtroumpfing, schtroumpf it back”. The two spent the rest of the night bantering in “schtroumpf” language, a precursor to the language the Smurf characters spoke in. In 1958, Pierre Culliford (pen name, Peyo) was writing the Johan et Pirlouit comic series in Belgium when the “Schtroumpf” character made its first appearance.

A variety of Smurf characters

The Johan et Pirlouit comic series took place in Middle Ages and featured Johan as the page to the King along with his midget sidekick, Peewit. In 1958 during the Flute with Six Holes storyline, the characters were seeking a magic flute. While searching for the magic flute, Johan and Peewit met a tiny, blue-skinned humanoid creature in white clothing called a “Schtroumpf”. The Schtroumpf was accompanied by numerous other creatures who looked just like him, with an elderly leader who wore red clothing and had a white beard. Their first appearance was published in Spirou on October 23, 1958. They immediately became immensely popular, and the first independent Smurf stories appeared in the following year.

What are Smurfs?

Greedy Smurf

Smurfs were mostly male, very short, with blue skin, white trousers with a hole for their short tails, white hat, and sometimes some additional accessory that served to identify their personality (for instance, a Smurf cook might wear a cooking apron and chef’s hat). Smurfs can walk and run, but often move by skipping on both feet. They love to eat sarsaparilla (a species of Smilax) leaves, whose berries the smurfs would call “smurfberries”.

The Smurfs fulfill simple archetypes of everyday people: Lazy Smurf, Grouchy Smurf, Brainy Smurf, and so on. All Smurfs, with the exception of Papa, Baby, Smurfette, Nanny and Grandpa, are said to be one hundred years old. There were originally 99 Smurfs, but this number increased as new Smurf characters appeared throughout the years.

Inspired by Peyo and his friend’s dinner conversation during which they replaced many words with “schtroumpf “, a characteristic of the Smurf language is the frequent use of the word “smurf” in a variety of meanings. The Smurfs replace nouns and verbs in everyday speech with “smurf” but still manage to keep the conversation understandable to readers and viewers. When used as a verb, the word “Smurf” typically means “to make,” “to be,” “to laugh,” or “to do.” When a word is replaced in a statement, that same replacement is made in every repetition of it, even by other Smurfs. For instance, a dog that barks might be stated as “the smurf was smurfing all night long” to which another Smurf might reply, “yes, and his smurfing smurf kept me from sleeping”. So that the viewer of the animated series is able to understand the Smurfs, only some words (or a portion of the word) are replaced with the word “smurf.”

Jokey Smurf

When they first appeared in 1958, the Smurfs lived in a part of a fictional world called “the Cursed Land”. To reach the Cursed Land required magic or travelling through dense forests, deep marshes, a scorching desert and a high mountain range. The Smurf themselves use storks in order to travel long distances and keep up to date with events in the outside world.

In the Johan and Peewit stories, the Smurf village is made up of mushroom-like houses of different shapes and sizes in a desolate and rocky land with just a few trees. However, in the independent Smurf series the mushroom-like houses are more similar to one another and are located in a clearing in the middle of a deep forest.

The Smurfs’ community generally takes the form of a cooperative, sharing in a kind environment based on the principle that each Smurf has something he or she is good at, and thus contributes it to Smurf society for the benefit of all the other Smurfs. This has led to a bit of controversy with the Smurfs being labeled, associated, or praised as communists.

The success of the Smurfs

The Smurfs logo

The Smurfs secured their place in North American pop culture in 1981, when the Saturday-morning cartoon The Smurfs, produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions, aired on NBC from 1981 to 1989. The show became a major success for NBC, spawning spin-off television specials on an almost yearly basis. The Smurfs was nominated multiple times for Daytime Emmy awards and won Outstanding Children’s Entertainment Series in 1982-1983. The Smurfs television show enjoyed continued success until 1989, when, after nearly a decade of success, NBC cancelled it due to decreasing ratings

The Smurfs was named the 97th best animated series by IGN. They called it “kiddie cocaine” for people growing up during the Eighties. Smurfs appeared in video games, theme parks, music recordings, and as a float in the Macys’ Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Image Credits

A variety of Smurf characters via Sporcle
The Smurfs logo via Wikipedia Commons by Peyo Productions/I.M.P.S. with usage type - Public Domain. This logo image consists only of simple geometric shapes or text. It does not meet the threshold of originality needed for copyright protection, and is therefore in the public domain.
Pierre Culliford, the creator of the Smurfs at his drawing desk via The Game of Nerds

Featured Image Credit

Smurf village via
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