Today, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is an integral tenet of the Christmas dogma, but 70 years ago Rudolph was just another gimmick to sell merchandise.

Prior to 1939, Montgomery Ward Department Stores had been handing out coloring books at Christmas as a way to get shoppers in the door. The company’s marketing director figured it would be cheaper for the store to create its own give-away booklet than to buy all of those coloring books each year.

Copywriter Robert L. May was tapped for the assignment, and he wrote the tale of Rudolph. That year 2.4 million copies of the story were handed out. Paper rationing during World War II hampered distribution, but by 1946 some 6 million copies had been published.

May convinced Montgomery Ward to let him have the copyright on the story, and in 1947 a 9-minute cartoon was shown nationwide. But the story of Rudolph really took off in 1947 when Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, wrote the song about the red-nosed reindeer that was recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. The 1964 claymation TV special narrated by Burl Ives cemented Rudolph’s place in Christmas lore.

Did you know?

  • Before settling on the name Rudolph, May considered the names Rollo and Reginald.