Chicago, IL

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Was Born in Chicago

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was created in Chicago by Robert L. May, copywriter for Montgomery Ward to be distributed to children in 1939

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Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode)binkaminka/Deviant Art

The story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was originally created as an assignment given to an advertising copywriter, Robert L. May who worked for the chain of Chicago based Montgomery Ward department stores in 1939. Up to that time, the store had been giving away holiday themed coloring books they bought to children for several years, and it was believed that creating a story specifically for the chain would save money.

So, May was tasked with writing a Christmas story that could be given out to children in Montgomery Ward stores across the country. He'd been asked to create a story whose main character was an animal and having difficulty coming up with one to focus the tale on, turned to his young daughter for help. She loved visiting the Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo and her favorite animal there was the deer so May was inspired to write about a misfit deer. He named his new protagonist Rudolph because he thought the name “rolled off the tongue nicely.” The story line was modeled on May's own childhood during which, as the smallest boy in his class, he'd been bullied by the other children. After about 50 hours of writing, a tired May put down his pencil, and Rudolph was born.

Before the holiday season was over, two million, four hundred thousand copies of the book had been given out to delighted children everywhere. This shattered the record for the first edition of any book written by that time. But not even May could tell how big the story would grow.

The animation film of the Chicago story, a favorite of children broadcast without missing a year since 1946, has become the longest-running TV Christmas special. Ten years after the story's initial success, Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law, composed the musical version recorded by Gene Autry. It went to number one on the charts and became the fourth best-selling Christmas song of all time.

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