Montgomery Ward commissioned a young ad man to come up with a story that could be translated into a coloring book for children at Christmas. It was the retailer’s tradition to hand out coloring books so they decided creating their own would be cheaper than buying them wholesale from someone else.
In 1939, with almost a year to work on the assignment, Robert May started with the idea of an animal-then reindeer as a nod to his little girl’s fondness for the reindeer at the zoo. Inspiration came one day when looking out his office window and saw the thick fog of Lake Michigan creeping into the city. How about a reindeer with a luminescent nose that could guide Santa’s sleigh through a foggy night and deliver presents to children worried that Santa might not be able to find them.
Rollo, Rodney, Reginald and Romeo were on the list of alliterative names for his misfit reindeer. But, it was Rudolph that captured the writer’s fancy.
May’s wife became ill and passed away during the summer that he was writing/developing the coloring book that was to bring in more customers than ever. The pressure was intense-but when offered a reprieve from the assignment, he chose to continue. “I needed Rudolph more than ever,” he was to write later. He delivered his coloring book in late August: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Success beyond expectations greeted the little coloring book of 89 rhyming couplets. 2.4 million copies were given away to children that Christmas.
World War II was making demands known by then and the second printing of 1.6 million copies was postponed. Printing began again at the conclusion of the war, and it was more popular than ever! Montgomery Ward handed out another 3.6 million copies that Christmas.
In 1947, Rudolf’s creator Robert May was given the copyright by the board of directors. Soon, Rudolph themed merchandise was available: puzzles, snow globes, mugs, slippers and View Master reels. In 1949, a relative set the story to music, and the singing cowboy, Gene Autry recorded it-selling 2 million copies that first year. In 1964 an animated version of the story was created and remains the longest running Christmas special in television history.
I love that Rudolph and Robert May shared the history of being under pressure and not just surviving, but thriving. The message of acceptance of others and celebrating everyone’s unique gifts is one that lives on in the story of a little misfit reindeer.
Merry Christmas, iSissies! And who can’t keep from singing right now “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer….had a very shiny nose…”