From The College's Website: Notes from the Special Collections
RUDOLPH AT FIFTY
KENNETH C. CRAMER
FIFTY YEARS AGO this year, Robert Lewis May 1926, while working for Montgomery Ward
and Company in Chicago as an advertising editor, created 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' as a Christmas promotion for the
company. Rudolph first appeared in a 32-page booklet, which was distributed to Montgomery Ward customers. Denver Gillen, an
artist for the company, made the crayon drawings.
In 1958 May presented the original manuscript of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' to
Dartmouth College, together with several copies of the published version and Rudolph memorabilia. Since then other editions
of the Christmas tale have been acquired and additional memorabilia donated by the children of Robert May. Today one can see
in Special Collections twenty-six various editions including foreign-language ones, miniatures and pop-ups, and sheet music
with the tune by Johnny Marks. The memorabilia include lamps, crockery, glassware, tinware, jewelry, neckties, kerchiefs,
plush toys, music boxes, and original artwork. A display of the books and memorabilia will be mounted in the main hall of
Baker Library through the Christmas holidays to help celebrate the golden anniversary of the appearance of `Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer' of whom sociologist James H. Barnett wrote: 'Nast [Thomas] was most successful in creating a pictorial conception
of Santa Claus which personified his folk qualities and captured public favor. Since his time there have been no important
additions to the folk figures of Christmas pictorial art, with the possible exception of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.'
So popular has Rudolph become that a two-column article in the 22 December 1985 issue
of the New York Times appeared with the headline "'Rudolph" Gets Refurbished,' referring to restoration work being
done on the forty-six-year-old manuscript by the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts. 2 Not a part of the Library's collection, but owned by the College, is a life-size papier-mâché
Rudolph which was displayed on the front lawn of the May home in Evanston, Illinois, for more than twenty-five years. This
Rudolph has been displayed in the rotunda of Hopkins Center on at least two Christmases.
In the January 1975 issue of Guideposts May tells why he wrote this story: 'It
seemed I'd always been a loser, . . . As a child I'd always been the smallest in the class. Frail, poorly coordinated, I was
never asked to join the school teams. After mustering enough courage to ask a girl to dance, I'd catch her winking over my
shoulder at a taller boy to get him to cut in.' 3
Robert May died in August 1976, just two months after attending his
fiftieth reunion at Dartmouth.
1. James H. Barnett, The American Christmas:
A Study in National Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1954), p. 104. An article that appeared in the Milford, New Hampshire, Cabinet,
26 June 1958, quoted Barnett as referring to the Rudolph story as 'the only original addition to the folklore of Santa Claus
in this century.'
2. 1, 49:1
3. 'Rudolph and I Were Something Alike,'
May wrote advertising the Montgomery Ward Company. In 1939, the company wanted
to give children a coloring book for the Holiday Season. So, in January '39, May started his story. Overcoming
rejections caused by concern for the red nose depicting a drunken sot... May finally "sold" his Rudolph concept
to the company with the help of Denver Gillen, who illustrated the reindeer. Montgomery Ward distributed 2,500,000
that Holiday Season. In '46, the company distributed an additional 3,500,000 copies.
Because May had created the story as an employee,
Montgomery Ward held the copyright; he received no royalties. In January '47, Sewell Avery, chairman of Montgomery
Ward, gifted May the copyrights which then helped to defray the large debt caused from medical bills incurred through
his wife's terminal illness in '39, at the time he had created Rudolph. Needless to say, May's finanical woes were
In 1949, Johnny Marks**, May's brother-in-law, wrote
the song about Rudolph. It was this song that forever cemented Rudolph in the minds of children. Gene Autry recorded
it; it rocketed to #1 on the Hit Parade and went sold 2,000,000 copies -- that's Double Platinum in today's jargon!
It was the biggest Christmas hit since White Christmas in '42. A film version was released in 1964.
Today, Rudolph, the story and song, has been translated into over 25 languages. Not too shabby for a loser reindeer
that was laughed at and called names until the fog set in -- a concept perhaps inspired by Dartmouth's mists.
May wasn't the first to depict Santa with a reindeer. In 1821, a sixteen-page
booklet, "A New Years Present for the Little Ones from Five to Twelve, Part III," was the first to picture Santa in a sleigh
drawn by a reindeer.
May joined Montgomery Ward in 1936... left
in 1951 to manage Rudolph's career... but returned in '58 to stay until he retired in 1970. May died in 1976.
After several reorganizations, Montgomery Ward, one of this nations top two retailers, ceased operations in early 2001.
In 1989, Wards reissued a Golden Anniversary Edition, a facsimile of the original
1939 edition, published by Applewood Books. Today, reproductions of the original '39 edition are available through used-book
** Marks, who
is generally regarded as one of the most prolific writers of secular Christmas tunes, also wrote The Most Wonderful Time of
the Year, Rockin Around the Christmas Tree and Holly Jolly Christmas and others.