Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created in Chicago by Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert L. May to sell toys in 1939. Here’s how the popular Christmas character — and its author — went down in history.

·11 min read

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was conceived for a purely Scrooge-like reason — to make money.

Thankfully, its creator saw the Montgomery Ward marketing campaign as an opportunity to be as bold in his writing as the fantastical flying stag with a blindingly bright beak he invented was when called upon to pull Santa Claus’ sleigh through fog.

More than 80 years after its inception, here’s how Rudolph — a completely Chicago concoction — became a Christmas icon.

The story

The original Rudolph story — about 100 rhyming phrases spread over 32 pages — was written in 1939 by Montgomery Ward advertising copywriter Robert Lewis May and predates his fellow Dartmouth College grad Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” book by almost two decades.

For May, writing “Rudolph” was a chance to finally flex his imagination — as he had done in creating parodies for Ward’s office parties. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1926, he worked as an ad writer and manager at Macy’s and Gimbels in New York City. Ten years later he moved to Chicago to work for Ward’s.

“Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts,” he recalled for Guideposts magazine in 1975.

Ward’s and Sears were the nation’s largest mail-order and department stores in 1939. With each company dueling for supremacy, Ward’s came up with an idea to attract families to its toy department — “a Christmas give-away story” May called it in a 1976 letter. Parents would receive copies of the free pamphlet at any of Ward’s more than 600 locations throughout the country during the pre-World War II Christmas season. Surprisingly, Ward’s didn’t sell any items bearing Rudolph’s likeness to accompany the soft-covered booklet.

He took on this extra assignment and worked nights and weekends on it from his family’s apartment at 2734 N. Mildred Ave. in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. He essentially crafted an original poem infused with his own relatable, underdog experiences from childhood. It also took inspiration from the “The Ugly Duckling” fairy tale and coupled it with a heroic addition to the “eight, tiny rein-deer” pulling Santa’s sleigh in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

May considered a laundry list of “R” names for his character before settling on Rudolph. One wonders if it would still be the most famous reindeer of all — had its name been Reginald, instead?

Ward’s executives gave the story a green light after company illustrator Denver Gillen added his depictions of reindeer games and a sorrowful turned triumphant Rudolph to the story’s layout. One interesting tidbit about Gillen’s drawings — each incorrectly depicts female reindeers without antlers and males with them when the opposite typically occurs during the winter.

May’s oldest daughter, Barbara Lewis, who was 4 years old at the time, remembers visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo with her father and Gillen to sketch the animals.

“We went to the zoo and they were checking out the reindeer. My father wanted to write a book for Christmas about a deer and he came up with Rudolph. The boss didn’t like the idea initially, but it all ended well,” she said in a recent interview with the Tribune.

You may have heard a few conflicting stories explaining why May wrote the Rudolph story.

“A lot of garbage has been written about the creation of the only 20th-Century Christmas legend. One tale I vaguely recall had poverty-stricken May writing the story in his miserable garret as the only gift he could afford for his children at a Depression-time Christmas. Bosh!” wrote Herb Daniels in his syndicated column, “The Modern Almanac,” in 1977.

Daniels was right — the story was written because it was May’s job. Not to be overlooked, however, was his somber life at home and how it might have seeped into the narrative. His wife, Evelyn, died of cancer on July 28, 1939, while he was writing the story.

May knew his story about the reindeer with a red nose had the potential to become a brand of its own.

He stayed in touch with his alma mater, Dartmouth, even asking an administrator there in November 1939 to help him get in touch with Walt Disney Productions regarding a potential animated feature about the red-nosed reindeer story.

“Seriously, I’ve always felt that Rudolph must have had a team of Good Angels who watched over and guided him,” May wrote in a letter to the son of former Montgomery Ward president Wilbur H. Norton, on April 20, 1976, just four months before the author’s death.

The original manuscript and illustrations have been housed at Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library — yep, named after the former governor — since 1958, a gift from May.

“Born as a copyright, Rudolph has remained one ever since,” author Ronald D. Lankford, Jr. wrote in his 2017 book, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero.”

The copyright

May said Norton offered to work on getting the copyright transferred to him in 1943 since the character was “gathering dust in the attic,” May wrote.

May, surprisingly, took a rain check on the offer, saying he wanted to resurrect Rudolph for another Christmas marketing campaign at Ward’s.

“Now that I look back, it was a foolhardy and/or courageous decision. Anything could have happened in the meantime ... and darn near did!” May wrote in a 1976 letter.

The gamble paid off — Ward’s issued another 3.6 million copies of its “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for its stores in 1946. The story remained intact except for one minor change — Santa Claus’s Rudolph-less sleigh almost collided with a four-motored plane instead of a three-motored one.

Though Rudolph’s story was popular, it wasn’t lucrative for its creator — yet.

“Mind you, I’d never made a dime from my story and my modest Ward salary couldn’t begin to keep-up with the rising cost of living, and the regular visits of the stork,” May wrote in a 1976 letter.

May remarried twice and had a total of six children — Barbara, Joanna, Christopher, Virginia, Martha and Betsy.

But when RCA-Victor contacted Ward’s about creating a recording of the Rudolph story set to music — also in 1946 — May saw an opportunity to finally gain his own royalties from the reindeer.

“I sensed that Victor’s letter might be just what I needed to break the ice on the all-important copyright-transfer subject,” May said.

May pleaded his case with several managers at Ward’s, but it was Norton, May said, who made the difference. Norton convinced Ward’s Chairman Sewell Avery — whom May described as “a one-man Supreme Court, from whose decision there was no appeal” — to transfer the Rudolph copyright to May. Norton argued the department store was “not in the business to try to make a couple of thousand in royalties from RCA-Victor,” May recalled.

Avery reportedly told a meeting of Ward’s officers, “Let Bob May have it.”

“Five words that changed my life,” May said.

The copyright was officially transferred to May on Jan. 1, 1947 — so Ward’s could complete the 1946 Rudolph Christmas promotion without infringing on May’s new ownership of Rudolph. (This copyright was renewed in 1967, and the original 1939 version of the story is set to enter the public domain in 2034.)

For the first time on Oct. 4, 1947, the Rudolph story was sold in book form — for 50 cents a copy — and no longer given away. Over the years the story and illustrations would change, but the rights stayed with May. He appeared at local bookstores and children’s Christmas events — including one with a skydiving Santa — to sign copies of his book. The original was reissued in 1993 and found a new generation of Rudolph fans.

With his new source of revenue, May moved his family — and his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Enterprises venture — to Evanston. He often referred to his home at 9301 Hamlin Ave. as “the house that Rudolph built.” It’s where he grew 15-foot-tall tomato plants and created two follow-up Rudolph stories.

At both that address and their next house — two blocks away at 9515 Avers Ave. — the Mays put a 6-foot papier-mache Rudolph with a blinking red nose in their front yard every December. The family later donated it to Dartmouth, which restored it and displayed it in the Rauner library.

In 1973, the reindeer was not basking in the glow of a floodlight, as usual.

“I got so many calls and comments from kids when I didn’t light Rudolph’s nose because of the energy crisis, I decided to compromise,” May told the Tribune. He then turned the figure’s nose on.

“We would get dozens and dozens and dozens of children, young adults and families coming over, and the doorbell wouldn’t stop ringing,” daughter Martha May said. “Christmas carolers wanted their picture taken with Daddy and the deer. It was so joyful for me to see that side of him, just carefree.”

With the copyright, May was now free to create a variety of items featuring the red-nosed reindeer, but he also realized Rudolph’s popularity would fluctuate with each year’s new Christmas fads.

“I quickly realized that my flow of royalties would soon dry up unless I could make Rudolph known and popular and successful outside Montgomery-Ward-land,” May wrote in a 1976 letter. “Along with newspaper and magazine articles, radio and TV interviews, I thought of trying to accomplish my purpose with a Rudolph song.”

The song

He contacted Johnny Marks, a songwriter who also happened to be married to May’s sister, Margaret. Marks adapted May’s story into lyrics and set it to music.

That song was first recorded in 1949 by cowboy star Gene Autry, whose wife, Ina, apparently persuaded him to do it. It became one of the biggest hits of the season, selling 1.75 million copies. It also became the first No. 1 song of the 1950s, according to ASCAP.

Though Marks died in 1985, his St. Nicholas Music publishing company still owns the song’s copyright. In 2020, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Marks was the 20th-most-popular holiday song — played almost 30,000 times on radio stations throughout the United States and more than 75 million times on-demand through streaming platforms, according to MRC Data/BDS.

Hundreds of artists — from Bing Crosby to Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton to DMX and Dean Martin to Destiny’s Child — have recorded their own takes on the original.

Burl Ives — disguised as Sam the Snowman — made the tune memorable for a new generation of Rudolph fans.

The TV special

Though the first animated feature about the character came out in 1948, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is considered the quintessential show about May’s creation.

Released in 1964 — the 25th anniversary’s of the original story — the stop-motion animation special is the longest continuously running Christmas TV special in history. It predates “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” by a year and two years, respectively.

Earlier this month, CBS aired the Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment show for the 57th straight year. Marks composed for it seven original songs, which the Tribune called “sprightly, catchy and singable.”

The special brought the Rudolph story to yet another generation of children — including May’s daughter, Martha.

“The first year, we watched it on a big box Montgomery Ward TV in the rec room, you know, the wood-paneled rec room in the basement and it was like magic. As soon as the show ended, I tell you, the phone did not stop ringing. Daddy felt like such a celebrity,” she said. ”At the beginning of the show, my father’s name and my uncle Johnny Marks, who did the music, their names are on little gift boxes during the opening credits. I’ve always loved to see that.”

For the program, Rudolph gained a love interest named Clarice. He also found friendship with another outcast, Hermey the Elf, who would rather become a dentist than make toys, as well as Yukon Cornelius, a dog-sled musher looking for silver and gold. The Island of Misfit Toys storyline mirrors a section from May’s “Rudolph’s Second Christmas” book.

They remain ingrained in modern culture. In 2014, three characters appeared on U.S. Postal Service stamps — Santa, Hermey and Bumble the abominable snowman. Two puppets from the production were sold at auction last year for $368,000.

Rudolph’s legacy

May died at the age of 71 on Aug. 10, 1976, and is buried in River Grove’s St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery.

“It’s the only reindeer I know that ever put six kids in college,” May told the Tribune in 1972. If he were alive today, he’d say it put his grandchildren through college, too.

His family still retains the copyright to May’s work through the Robert L. May Co. Character Arts licenses the Rudolph image for everything from T-shirts to toys.

And, as the Tribune noted in 1972, Rudolph never ages and there is no generation gap in his story.

Why does Rudolph endure?

“Americans,” he said, “are always for the underdog who, thru goodness and perseverance, gains the respect of everyone.”