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‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Was Created as a Promotional Gimmick for Montgomery Ward

Photo Credit: MoviePics1001 / NBC / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: MoviePics1001 / NBC / MovieStillsDB

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a quintessential holiday tale that follows everyone’s favorite reindeer as he helps save Christmas in the midst of a dangerous storm. Today, there are many iterations of the story – in print, television, and film – but it wasn’t created from a love of the season. Rather, it was written and printed as a promotional gimmick for a department store.

Montgomery Ward

Montgomery Ward first opened as a mail-order company that expanded into a department store chain in 1926. By 1930, it was a major business that had 556 stores spread across the United States. It was from the company’s marketing team that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was born.

In the years prior to 1939, Montgomery Ward gave out Christmas coloring books to customers. They had to purchase the books themselves and then distribute them, which wasn’t exactly cost-effective.

Red cover that reads "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with a reindeer in the middle.
Cover art of the first edition of the classic holiday tale, initially written as a holiday promotional booklet in 1939. (Photo Credit: Pierce Archive LLC/ Buyenlarge/ Getty Images)

In 1939, the department store decided that in order to save money they would have one of their copywriters create a Christmas story instead of buying something from an outside source. At 34 years old, Robert L. May was tasked with writing this book that would earn the store goodwill among customers and entice them to make more purchases.

Creating Rudolph

May was given relatively little instruction from his boss, who simply told him that it should be “cheery” and feature “a character like Ferdinand the Bull.” May quickly decided that the main character would be a reindeer, as they were associated with Christmas. As for the name, there were many considered: Romeo, Reginald, Rollo, and Rodney. Ultimately May settled on Rudolph.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer beside Hermey the Elf.
Publicity still of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Hermey the Elf from the 1964 stop-motion television special. (Photo Credit: murraymomo / NBC / MovieStillsDB)

He drew heavily on his experiences as a shy child to create the Rudolph character. The inspiration for Rudolph’s most iconic feature, however, literally came to May out of the blue. He was staring out his window on a very foggy day and, as he recalled, “Suddenly I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a spotlight.”

It took May about 50 hours to write the entire story, reading each piece to his daughter Barbara along the way.

A stunning success

May finished the story in time for the 1939 holiday season at Montgomery Ward, and it was printed as a booklet for their shoppers. The story was a staggering success. In the first year, 2.4 million copies were given out. Due to the wartime ration on paper, the department store didn’t release it again until 1946, but when they did they gave away 3.6 million copies. In 1947, the story was properly printed for the first time by Maxton Books.

Animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh in front of other reindeer.
Publicity still of Rudolph pulling Santa’s sleigh from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie. (Photo Credit: grzegorz77/ GoodTimes Entertainment, Golden Books Family Entertainment, and Tundra Productions/ MovieStillsDB)

In the years since its creation, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has grown far beyond a promotional gimmick. In fact, this part of the story’s history is seldom remembered. The book has been reprinted multiple times, several different television shows and films have been made, and of course, there’s the festive song.

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The song was created by May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, and has been recorded by many stars over the years including Gene Autry, Mitch Miller, Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.