How Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went down in history?
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How Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went down in history?

Curious to know more about how Rudolph really went down in history? It’s all in the pages of a long-overlooked scrapbook compiled by the story’s author, Robert L. May.

books Updated: Dec 23, 2011 12:18 IST
Associated Press

You know Dasher and Dancer and the rest of the gang. But do you recall, the most Perfect Christmas Crowd-Bringer of all?

That’s how executives at Montgomery Ward originally described Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, who first appeared in a 1939 book written by one of the company’s advertising copywriter and given free to children as a way to drive traffic to the stores.

Peter Carini stands next to a full size Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, part of a special collection at Dartmouth College, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 in Hanover, N.H. The collection is from the estate of Robert May, a Dartmouth graduate who wrote the famous story in 1939 as part of a Montgomery Ward marketing campaign, and includes a list of other names he considered.

Curious to know more about how Rudolph really went down in history? It’s all in the pages of a long-overlooked scrapbook compiled by the story’s author, Robert L. May, and housed at his alma mater, Dartmouth College.

May donated his hand-written first draft and illustrated mock-up to Dartmouth before his death at age 71 in 1976, and his family later added to what has become a large collection of Rudolph-related documents and merchandise, including a life-sized papier-mache reindeer that now stands among the stacks at the Rauner Special Collections Library. But May’s scrapbook about the book’s launch and success went unnoticed until last year, when Dartmouth archivist Peter Carini came across it while looking for something else.

“No one on staff currently knew we had it. I pulled it out and all the pieces started falling out. It was just a mess,” Carini said.

The scrapbook, which has since been restored and catalogued, includes May’s list of possible names for his story’s title character — from Rodney and Rollo to Reginald and Romeo. There’s a map showing how many books went to each state and letters of praise from adults and children alike.

The scrapbook also chronicles the massive marketing campaign Montgomery Ward launched to drum up newspaper coverage of the book giveaway and its efforts to promote it within the company.

Near the front of the scrapbook is a large, colored poster instructing Montgomery Ward stores about how to order and distribute the book. An illustration of Rudolph sweeps across the page, his name written in ornate script. There are exclamation points galore. “The rollinckingest, rip-roaringest, riot-provokingest, Christmas give-away your town has ever seen!” ‘’A laugh and a thrill for every boy and girl in your town (and for their parents, too!)”

Rudolph is described as “the perfect Christmas crowd-bringer,” if stores follow a few rules, including giving the book only to children accompanied by adults. “This will limit ‘street urchin’ traffic to a minimum, and will bring in the PARENTS ... the people you want to sell!”

The response was overwhelming — at a time when a print-run of 50,000 books was considered a best-seller, the company gave away more than 2 million copies that first year, and by the following year was selling an assortment of Rudolph-themed toys and other items.

But lest this become a story about corporate greed, it should be noted that in 1947, Montgomery Ward took the unusual step of turning over the copyright to the book to May, who was struggling financially after the death of his first wife.

“He then made several million dollars using that in various ways, through the movie, the song, merchandising and things like that,” Carini said. “I think it’s a great story, because it shows how corporations used to think of themselves as part of civil society, and how much that has changed.”

First Published: Dec 23, 2011 12:18 IST