Where Did the Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Come From?

Where Did the Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Come From?

Now this is a story you can tell at Christmas!


It is amazing just how many of our Christmas traditions are actually quite recent! Just 70 years ago, the Montgomery Ward Company issued a small book to its various stores around the U.S.A.  The book was a promotional item to be given away for free to kids who came to see Santa Claus. It was the story of a little misfit reindeer named Rudolph who turned his large shiny red nose into an advantage. He saved Christmas by leading Santa’s sleigh through a foggy Christmas night.

The original story was penned by Robert L. May. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1926, May went on to be a copywriter for Wards. At the time, his wife was suffering from cancer. He came up with the story for his daughter Barbara to lift her spirits. May had always felt that he was a bit of a misfit himself. He was small and weak, was never picked first for sports teams as a child and never excelled socially, even as an adult.

While his Dartmouth classmates went off to take high-powered jobs, he laboured away as a lowly copywriter.  May said that he modelled Rudolph on how he felt about his own life.

rudyMay’s boss initially turned down the idea when presented with the first draft of the story, but May persisted. He went to his friend Denver Gillen in the art department and asked him to mock up the story. Suddenly, then, his boss loved the idea. After changing the reindeer’s name from “Rollo” to “Rudolph,” the story was approved and Wards began distributing the books on November 1, 1939 and quickly passed out 2,400,000 copies. Newspaper columnists called it “the biggest first edition in history.” Stores were overrun with shoppers eager to get their free copy, leading to shortages.

Production of the books ground to a halt during WWII, but Wards circulated them again in 1946, passing out an additional 3,600,000 copies. During the writing of the story, May’s wife passed away. He later remarried, but was burdened by the debt he had accrued from his first wife’s hospital bills. At the end of the 1946 run, Wards decided they had milked Rudolph for all it was worth.  At the urging of a Vice President who knew of May’s troubles, the Board of Directors turned the copyright over to May on January 1, 1947.

In 1948 an eight-minute animated film came out and in 1949, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks composed the now classic song. (Recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, the record sold 2 million copies.)

In 1964 the “Animagic” TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired for the first time. It is still the longest running TV special in history. In addition, May licensed hundreds of Rudolph properties including toys, pens, mugs, music boxes, pyjamas and even dishware! In the end, May’s own story became more like Rudolph’s story then he would have guessed.

In 2009 an un-catalogued scrapbook created by Robert May, documenting the creation and distribution of Rudolph story, was discovered. The scrapbook, like most scrapbooks, was in terrible shape with about 50% of the items having come loose from their original pages.

Staff from Dartmouth pulled the pieces together and identified where they belonged. McKey Berkman, a student at the North Bennet Street School, who was doing an internship with the Library’s Preservation Services Department, did further placement of the materials and remounted them on new pages.

The scrapbook is now preserved as a wonderful resource documenting May’s conception of the Rudolph story and its remarkable rise in popularity. Included in the scrapbook are a number of letters from children who received the free booklet in 1939. One letter from Robert and Carolyn Rosenbaum reads:

“I enjoyed the book very much. My sister could not read it so I read it to her. The man that wrote it done better than I could in all my born days, and that’s nine years.”

With more than 5 million copies in print by 1946, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer endures to this day as one of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time.

If you want to see the original works, the Rauner Library is the home of the Robert May collection, which contains copies of the original soft-covered books, Rudolph stuffed animals and merchandise, and a 54-page scrapbook that details the creation and marketing of Rudolph.

While May wrote a few other children’s books before his death in 1976, none of them achieved the level of fame that Rudolph did. He was once quoted that he’d spent his life “working for a reindeer.” Both May and Rudolph surely did go down in history.

Rudolph gets Some Science:

Scientifically speaking, what are the optical benefits of a shiny red nose on a foggy Christmas Eve? In a paper just published by Frontiers for Young Minds, Nathaniel J. Dominy, Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth, explores this very question. By citing research by other scientists on the unique eyes and vision of Arctic reindeer, Dominy explains why Rudolph is able to lead Santa and his team of eight tiny reindeer through the thick Arctic fog.

Dominy points out that Arctic reindeer (scientific name Rangifer tarandus tarandus) can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans and most mammals. This is a trait that comes handy in mid-winter when the sun is low on the horizon and the high scattered light from the atmosphere is mainly blueish and ultraviolet. In addition, the reflective tissue (tapetum lucidum) in reindeer eyes changes from a rich golden colour during the summer months to a deep blue colour during the winter months. This tissue (which causes eye shine at night) helps nocturnal animals see in the dark, and a blue one is expected to improve their ability to see blue light. Yet, fog extinguishes blue light more readily than red light, which may make it especially difficult for Santa’s reindeer to see blue effectively, never mind fly.

This is where Rudolph’s luminescent (glowing) nose comes into play, as it serves as an excellent fog light for navigating his fellow reindeer. Given that the redness of Rudolph’s nose is similar to red holly berries, Dominy was able to estimate the colour of light emitted from Rudolph’s nose by measuring the colour of holly berries. He found that Rudolph’s nose is probably the maximum level of redness that mammals are able to see, which may explain why Rudolph’s nose is effective as a fog light.

According to Dominy, Rudolph’s nose also poses a problem. Reindeer noses are extremely vascular, which causes them to lose body heat through their noses. A glowing nose could cause excessive heat loss for Rudolph, putting him at risk of hypothermia. Says Dominy, “It is therefore imperative for children to provide high-calorie foods to help Rudolph replenish his energetic reserves on Christmas Eve.”


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