FIFTY YEARS AGO this year Robert Lewis May 1926, while working for Montgomery Ward and Company in Chicago as an advertising editor, created 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' as a Christmas promotion for the company. Rudolph first appeared in a 32-page booklet, which was distributed to Montgomery Ward customers. Denver Gillen, an artist for the company, made the crayon drawings.
In 1958 May presented the original manuscript of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' to Dartmouth College, together with several copies of the published version and Rudolph memorabilia. Since then other editions of the Christmas tale have been acquired and additional memorabilia donated by the children of Robert May. Today one can see in Special Collections twenty-six various editions including foreign-language ones, miniatures and pop-ups, and sheet music with the tune by Johnny Marks. The memorabilia include lamps, crockery, glassware, tinware, jewelry, neckties, kerchiefs, plush toys, music boxes, and original artwork. A display of the books and memorabilia will be mounted in the main hall of Baker Library through the Christmas holidays to help celebrate the golden anniversary of the appearance of `Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' of whom sociologist James H. Barnett wrote: 'Nast [Thomas] was most successful in creating a pictorial conception of Santa Claus which personified his folk qualities and captured public favor. Since his time there have been no important additions to the folk figures of Christmas pictorial art, with the possible exception of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' 1
So popular has Rudolph become that a two-column article in the 22 December 1985 issue of the New York Times appeared with the headline "'Rudolph" Gets Refurbished,' referring to restoration work being done on the forty-six-year-old manuscript by the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts. 2 Not a part of the Library's collection, but owned by the College, is a life-size papier-mâché Rudolph which was displayed on the front lawn of the May home in Evanston, Illinois, for more than twenty-five years. This Rudolph has been displayed in the rotunda of Hopkins Center on at least two Christmases.
In the January 1975 issue of Guideposts May tells why he wrote this story: 'It seemed I'd always been a loser, . . . As a child I'd always been the smallest in the class. Frail, poorly coordinated, I was never asked to join the school teams. After mustering enough courage to ask a girl to dance, I'd catch her winking over my shoulder at a taller boy to get him to cut in.' 3
Robert May died in August 1976, just two months after attending his fiftieth reunion at Dartmouth.
1. James H. Barnett, The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1954), p. 104. An article that appeared in the Milford, New Hampshire, Cabinet, 26 June 1958, quoted Barnett as referring to the Rudolph story as 'the only original addition to the folklore of Santa Claus in this century.'
2. 1, 49:1
3. 'Rudolph and I Were Something Alike,' 12.