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First Edition – Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer, 1939

” That’s why when it’s foggy and gray, it’s Rudolph the Red Nose, who guides Santa’s Sleigh”

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer has been part of Christmas lore since he entered the pop culture conscious in 1939.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the brainchild of Robert L. May, a 35-year-old advertising copywriter for the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store. In 1939, May was commissioned by his supervisor to create an original Christmas story that the store could give away to shoppers at holiday time. May was tapped in part for his affinity for children’s limericks, the form in which the first Rudolph iteration was written. […]

The first Rudolph booklet, with illustrations by Denver Gillen, was distributed to two and a quarter million Montgomery Ward customers during Christmas of 1939. Although quite popular, it was not released again until 1946 due to wartime paper shortages, but by the end of that year, a total of six million copies had been distributed nationwide.

It was in this form that Rudolph first became an icon for wartime Christmas celebrants and a lucrative marketing tool for Montgomery Ward. It made little money for May, however, until 1947, when he persuaded Montgomery Ward president Sewed Avery to transfer the copyright to him.

With these rights secured, May set about building the next generation of Rudolphiana. In 1947, a nine-minute Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon, directed by Popeye creator Max Fleisher, played in movie theaters nationwide. Two years later, May commissioned his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to write a song based on the Rudolph character. The song, which glossed over many of the key details of May’s original story, became an immense hit for vocalist Gene Autry, selling two million copies in 1949 and joining “White Christmas” in the pantheon of Yuletide standards. In 1952, a now wealthy May quit his job at Montgomery Ward to manage the Rudolph business full-time. […]

Robert L. May’s prototypical creation was commemorated in 1990 with the publication of a handsome facsimile edition–the first time the story had been offered for sale in its original form.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2002 Gale Group.

How To Spot an Original

*In 1939 Montgomery Ward published 1000 hardbound copies in a gift box as a giveaway to their executives and suppliers. The 1939 hardbound copies are very difficult to find.

A  beautiful copy of the rare hard cover can be found here- Original Rudolph( 1939), available from Bauman Rare Books

The highly successful 1964 stop-motion children’s movie cemented Rudolph in our popular culture, and the 30 minute made for TV film is the longest running consecutive year TV perennial.



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