Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

1939 Montgomery-Ward edition, signed

You’ve probably only seen the movie and heard the Gene Autry song. But here’s a bit about the story itself, and how it all started as a free give-away at Montgomery Ward Department Store.

The story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was written in 1939 by Robert L. May, who was then a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. For years, the company had been purchasing and then giving away to customers copies of coloring books, and expensive proposition considering that much of the cost went toward royalties for the authors. Looking to keep the operation in-house, Montgomery Ward tasked May with coming up with a story that they would own exclusively. Nearly two-and-a-half million copies of Rudolph would be printed and sold in the first year of publication.

Initially, the publicity department of Montgomery Ward was reluctant to go with the theme of a red-nosed animal, as it evoked images of a drunk. It was only after illustrator Denver Gillen was able to show how child – and family-friendly Rudolph could be that they gave the go-ahead on the book.

Because May was an employee of Montgomery Ward when he wrote the book, his company owned the rights to it. Eventually, however, May was able to convince the president of the company to turn the copyright over to him, which he did in 1947.

The next year, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote the famous song about Rudolph. It was first recorded in 1949 by Gene Autry, and has since sold nearly 200 million copies. Throughout the 1950s and into the 60s, DC Comics published a December-only issue of a comic book featuring Rudolph. In later years, the stop-motion cartoon Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is still seen at Christmas time throughout the world.

The book was given to my grandmother by the author. It is first-edition hardback, 1939, 32 pages, 7-3/4″ x 10-1/4″, and signed by both the author and illustrator. The inscription reads: Merry Christmas to Shirley / Robert L May + Denver Gillen.

Here is the inscription: