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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.