Q: What can you tell us about the Billiken symbol on a license plate frame my parents found in the backyard of an old house they were rehabbing in Salina, Kan.? It says “St. Louis U. Billikens” in between a basketball player and one of those funny-looking Billiken mascots. We were told that the person who designed the Billiken mascot was from Kansas.
A. Did it come to her in a dream? Had she been Japanese in a past life? Or was it in reaction to a set of dour-looking deities owned by a fellow art teacher?
Through the years, illustrator Florence Pretz explained the creation of her impish-looking Billiken figure several ways, but one thing is certain: It had exploded into a worldwide phenomenon long before Saint Louis University adopted it as the school’s official mascot.
In fact, you have to go back to 1896 to find the seeds of this one-of-a-kind college nickname and symbol. At the time, Pretz was an art teacher at Manual Training High School in her native Kansas City. According to her 1912 wedding announcement in the Chicago Daily Tribune, she got the inspiration for the Billiken while looking at a collection of grouchy-looking gods belonging to a fellow art teacher.
“They brought to Miss Pretz’s mind the idea of fashioning a god who would smile and bring to his worshipers cheer instead of gloom,” the article said.
As best as can be determined, the curious figure made its first public appearance in, of all places, a 1907 issue of Canada West. By this time, Pretz and her K.C. friend Sara Hamilton Birchall had moved to Chicago, where Birchall began writing a series of children’s stories with Billiken as the main character. She drew the name from Canadian poet Bliss Carman’s 1896 work “Mr. Moon, A Song of the Little People.”
“O Mr. Moon, we’re all here! Honey-bug, Thistledrift, White-imp, Weird, Wryface, Billiken, Quidnunc, Queered. We’re all here, and the coast is clear! Moon, Mr. Moon, When you comin’ down?”
So when Birchall asked Pretz to illustrate the five stories that appeared between May 1907 and January 1908 in Canada West, Pretz drew the prototype of the Billiken — a chubby fairy with pointed ears, mischievous smile, wings, antennae and a beanie. But by the time it made its U.S. debut in the May 3, 1908, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, she had already transformed it into the Buddha-esque figure we know and love today with its pointed ears, mischievous smile and tuft of hair on its pointed head.
The article featured two photographs of Pretz, including one showing her dressed in a kimono as she admires her handiwork. Pretz said she had been dreaming of “things Japanese” and drawing “Japanese sketches” since she was a young girl, even suggesting she had been Japanese in a previous life. So it appears the Billiken was inspired by the mysterious Far East.
“‘He is the God of Things As They Ought to Be,’ said Miss Pretz as she set him up for her best girl friend to look at him after molding him out of clay and having him cast in plaster,” the article said. “‘There, smile for the lady, Billy’. Then the two friends began burning incense before him and worshipping him ... ”
It was said to be good luck to buy one and even better luck to have one given to you, and, for Pretz, good luck came in spades. By the time the article appeared, plaster Billikens were being produced by the hundreds and sold at craft shops, candy stores and art boutiques throughout the Windy City. A month later, Pretz applied for a design patent, and, on Oct. 6, 1908, it was granted No. 39608, thus becoming the first patented god, you might say. There may have been no Internet in those days, but it soon took the world by storm as well. By 1909, the Billiken was popping up in Alaskan souvenir shops as Eskimo carvers began routinely adding it to the collections they created. By the 1960s, Anchorage movie fans were pulling into the Billiken Drive-In.
All over the country, people were buying Billiken dolls, banks, hatpins, belt buckles and auto hood ornaments from The Billiken Co. by the truckload. In Hollywood, it appears several times in “Waterloo Bridge” with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, serving as a plot device that makes Taylor recollect his past. “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum reportedly kept one on his piano. Musicians were writing “The Billiken Rag” and “The Billiken Man Song.” Overseas, Billiken statues have been enshrined throughout Japan since 1908.
So just how did this international sensation become the unique mascot of Saint Louis University? Even the school says that the exact story has been lost to time, but they all point to the figure’s resemblance to John Bender, who began coaching the school’s football team in 1910. According to one story, a cartoonist drew a caricature of Bender as a Billiken and posted it in the window of a local drugstore. Soon, the football team became known as Bender’s Billikens.
Another version credits Billy Gunn, who ran a drugstore near the school. According to a 1946 obituary, “Coach Bender walked into Mr. Gunn's drugstore one afternoon and was greeted by the proprietor with: ‘Bender, you’re a real Billiken!’ William O’Connor, a noted sportswriter who was there, took up the name for Bender, and eventually the University teams became known as the Billikens.”
Whatever the truth, the Billiken has been the official mascot since at least 1921, according to some research. And, from 1959 to 1973, the Billiken truly was the “God of Things As They Ought to Be” when the school won its 10 NCAA soccer championships, which is still more than any other school.
To see the original “When Billiken Slept” story and much more information, go to www.churchofgoodluck.com. As for the license frame itself, I haven’t been able to find anyone able to date it precisely. It was just another piece of school merchandise churned out over the years.
Why would a city ever name itself “Yonkers”?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: As you might imagine starting those early cars could tend to make one, well, cranky. “Hand-cranking was the No. 1 injury risk in those early days of the automobile,” says Greg Wallace, director of the General Motors Heritage Center, referring to the kickback on the crank that could break an arm or worse. So, it’s a good bet that owners were overjoyed when Charles Kettering’s electric starter appeared for the first time in the 1912 Cadillac Touring edition.