For those of you still humming Christmas jingles and eagerly waiting until next year when you can belt them out again, here’s a little history about your favorite good-hearted reindeer. Did you know that the most famous reindeer of all is a 1939 creation of an advertising copywriter?
The idea for Rudolph took flight one foggy winter’s night in 1939, after the New Year. Retailer Montgomery Ward had a tradition of giving away children’s books as a holiday promotion, but for the 1939 Christmas season, the company decided to create one in-house to save money. Robert May, a 33 year old copywriter for the retailer’s catalogs, was known for sharing rhymes at the holiday party. This year, he was tasked by management to create a story about a lovable animal.
As May looked out his office window at the heavy fog rolling in off Lake Michigan, he came up with the idea of a misfit reindeer with a strange nose who redeemed himself by guiding Santa’s sleigh, saving Christmas for millions of girls and boys.
The book was a hit. At a time when selling 50,000 books made you a best seller, May’s Rudolph story moved 2.4 million copies in the first year, and the next year Montgomery Ward planned a print of 1.5 million more, and a line of Rudolph-themed toys.
Plans after that were put on hold due to supply shortages from World War II, and Rudolph remained on hiatus until the War’s conclusion. Popularity for Rudolph languished in the years following.
In the late 1940s, following the death of his wife, May was struggling financially. Believing the Rudolph brand lacked revenue potential, Montgomery Ward turned the copyright for Rudolph over to May.
May’s initial book was in rhyming couplets, similar to “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, converted the story to the song we all know and love. After Bing Crosby passed on the opportunity, Gene Autry recorded a version that topped the radio charts in 1949. It was the number one song on the Billboard list Christmas week 1949. Autry’s recording sold 2.5 million copies in that first year, and remains one of the best-selling singles of all time.
A few years later, May licensed a commercial version of the book, and Rudolph-themed merchandise included View-Master reels and snow globes. A best-selling line of Little Golden Books were published in the 1950s, and the classic stop-motion animated TV special premiered in 1964.
The TV special was sponsored by General Electric. Within the program, the company ran black and white spots. GE leveraged the characters from the program to help sell their products – from waffle irons to carving knives, and hot rollers.
A never-ending merchandising empire continues today. In fact, iSpot.tv reported that Rudolph was used by a range of marketers including Aflac, AT+T, Buick, and Denny’s this holiday season.
Before his death at the age of 71 in 1976, May donated his handwritten first draft to his alma mater, Dartmouth College. His family has since added to the large collection of Rudolph-related documents and merchandise, including a life-sized papier-mache reindeer that now stands proudly at the Rauner Special Collections Library. The collection includes May’s list of possible names for the story’s title character, including Rodney, Rollo, Reginald, and Romeo.