From The Archives: Rudolph Turns 75

Dec 18, 2014

Cover page from the original manuscript.

Do you recall the most famous reindeer of all? What was left out of the song was Rudolph's New Hampshire connection.

 Before the stop-animation TV special, before the song that made him a cultural icon, Rudolph was the hero of an epic poem. In 2006, NHPR’s Front Porch spoke with Bonnie Wallin, a curator at Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library. On this, Rudolph’s 75th birthday we remember his origin story. In 1939, the mail order and department store Montgomery Ward (department store and mail order catalogue company) asked one of its employees, Robert L. May, to write a Christmas-themed poem to include in their catalogue that year, and distribute to children coming to see Santa. 

May was a recent Dartmouth grad (class of ’26) and a staffer in Ward’s copywriting and merchandising department. He penned a long poem in the same meter as A Visit From St. Nicholas (for POEM members it scans as anapestic tetrameter - - /). In fact, the first line of May’s poem is ‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the hills.” 

The Rudolph stamp, based on the TV special (celebrating 50 years) was released this year.

The familiar story ensued, though it has some differences. Rudolph doesn’t live at the North Pole (as the TV program has it); Santa doesn’t discover Rudolph until halfway through his fog-engulfed travels on Christmas Eve; and he finds Rudolph in bed as he delivers presents to “the home of the deer.” But the ending and the main theme are much the same as spelled out in the song.

May submitted his rhyming couplets to executives at Montgomery Ward, but they didn’t like it and were prepared to scrap the whole project. May then enlisted Denver L. Gillen (an artist in the copywriting and merchandising dept.) to illustrate the poem then resubmitted it. The execs loved it. And the illustrations really are great, one has Santa’s eight starters sitting at a table having a final meal before their mission.

That first year, Montgomery Ward printed 2.5 million copies of the illustrated poem. And they did so each year until the war effort prompted them to stop for a couple of years. But they picked it up again after the war, printing 3.6 million copies in 1946 – for the last time. They figured that after seven years, the poem’s popularity had run its course.

All this while, Montgomery Ward held the copyright for Rudolph and May never saw a dime in royalties. And here’s where the unlikely happened. After lobbying on May’s behalf, one of his colleagues from the merchandising team convinced Sewell Avery, chair of the board of directors to give May the copyright. So on 1 January, 1947 the copyright passed to May.

May then licensed the name Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. This meant you couldn’t use the name, or even the image of the a deer with a red nose, without the permission of the Robert May company. Plush toys, slippers, ties, pens, ceramic figurines, etc. ensued.