Montgomery “Wards” Ward is a department store founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1872. In early 1939, one of the store’s catalogue copywriters, who normally wrote descriptions of the stores’ items, was asked to write a promotional short story for the up-coming holiday season. Although the store usually distributed small coloring books for their patron’s children during the Christmas season, those books were purchased through a third-party. Management felt that money could be saved if “Bob” could write a small story for their customers this year instead. The managers had suggested a cheery Christmas themed book, and in particular, an animal as the main character.
The copywriter Robert L. May later gave testament to his attitude towards his life before being given the assignment. “Here I was, heavily in debt at age 35, still grinding out catalogue copies. Instead of writing the great American novel as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts. It seemed I’d always been a loser.”
May was in fact a rather sad individual by nature. He had grown up a small and painfully shy Jewish boy from New Rochelle, New York. He identified with underdog characters and in particular, the Ugly Duckling, from the fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen. It was with himself and the Ugly Duckling in mind that he then formed his main character for his new assignment; Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.
Many impacts of May’s personal life had shone through in his writing. His daughter, then 4 years old, had been obsessed with the deer at the Lincoln Park Zoo. That asserted for him that his main character should be some type of cold weather hearty deer, since Santa lived in the North Pole.
He would also read drafts of his story to his daughter periodically, to maintain his works’ integrity of capturing a child’s interest.
He created a list of potential names to give to his main character (and Santa’s 9th reindeer). He settled on an “R” name for alliterative purposes. However it could have also been that it was Robert May’s way of identifying with his down-trodden character.
He felt that “Rollo” was too happy of a name for a reindeer facing blatant discrimination, bullying, and more. It was a close tie in May’s list of names between “Reginald” and “Rudolph,” however the name “Rudolph” easily rolled off the tongue.
His wife had also been reflected in his work throughout the development of his manuscript. Rudolph would often cry whole-heartedly at the plight of his life, and his creator did as well. May’s wife had been suffering from cancer during the writing of the children’s book. As Rudolph felt sad, lonely, and short-changed, so did May as well.
When first presented with May’s ideas on the book, Montgomery Ward management scoffed. “For gosh sakes. Bob, can’t you do better than that?,” his manager exclaimed. May approached his friend and co-worker Denver, who worked in the art department. He asked Denver to illustrate parts of his manuscript to re-pitch his idea. Denver’s sketches brought the story to life and at the second look-over, Montgomery Ward management became enthralled with the story. “Forget what I said, and put the story into finished form.,” were the manager’s words described by May in a 1975 interview.
May’s wife passed away in July of 1939, a month before the book was completed. May’s boss had offered to relieve May from his duties of writing in light of the event, but May refused. “I need Rudolph now more than ever.,” he said.
The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sold 2.4 million copies at its release. However, being a promotional item for the store, the book had been distributed at no cost. A couple of years later, a small publishing company printed hardcover copies of the book. In that year, another 3.6 million copies were distributed.
Montgomery Ward gave May the copyrights to Rudolph in 1947. In 1948, May’s bother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote song and lyric to May’s story, which would be sung by Gene Autry, and was released in 1949.
The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer has been inspiring children for decades to overcome adversities such as physical deformation, prejudice, discrimination, bullying, and more, which was May’s intention when writing the book.