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What's A Billiken?

Courtesy: Saint Louis Athletics
          Release: 08/14/2011
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The Billiken was born Oct. 8, 1908, when Kansas City art teacher and illustrator Florence Pretz patented a design for an elflike creature with pixie ears, a mischievous smile and a tuft of hair on his pointed head. Reportedly, the image came to her in a dream.

Although it didn't appear on the actual patent, some believe Pretz found the Billiken name in a fanciful work entitled, "Mr. Moon: A Song of the Little People," by Canadian poets Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey.

Within a short time, Pretz sold her patented image to the Billiken Company of Chicago. Initially manufactured as a bank and statuette, and later as a doll, this good luck charm soon became a national craze. By 1911, the Billiken's likeness adorned everything from marshmallow candies to hood ornaments.

In his heyday, the Billiken enjoyed worldwide fame. Artisans in Alaska began carving his image into ivory, and in Japan, he appeared in shrines, amusement parks and even a movie.

Like many other fads, the Billiken might have faded into obscurity if it were not for Saint Louis University law student John Bender, who also happened to be the coach of SLU's football team during the height of Billikenmania.

One story claims that nearby drugstore owner Billy Gunn called Bender a Billiken when the coach walked into his establishment one day. Supposedly, legendary sportswriter William O'Connor was within earshot of the remark and took up the moniker not only for Bender but also for SLU's sports teams.

Another tale claims O'Connor himself dubbed the coach a Billiken after a particularly good practice left Bender beaming with a big smile. After practice, Bender's fellow law student Charles Z. McNamara, a local cartoonist, sketched Bender as a Billiken, posted it in Gunn's drugstore window and tabbed the football team "Bender's Billikens."


Yet another yarn reports that the druggist asked McNamara to decorate his store window the night before a homecoming game. Supposedly, McNamara drew a Billiken, a popular good luck charm, causing one of his fellow students to exclaim, "That looks like coach Bender!"

Whatever the case, O'Connor is generally credited for popularizing the name throughout the city, but one fact flies in the face of this legend and lore. O'Connor did not join the St. Louis Post-Dispatch until Nov. 26, 1911, one full month after the newspaper first mentioned "Bender's Billikens."

Regardless of how the story is told or whether his mysterious origins are ever finally resolved, the Billiken remains a good luck charm for Saint Louis University's sports teams and always brings smiles to the faces of SLU fans.

Legend has it that the Billiken has three kinds of luck - good, better and best. Buying a Billiken gives the buyer good luck. To have one given to you is better luck. The best luck comes if the Billiken is stolen.


Please Note: All images of the Billiken are registered trademarks. Approval from the Collegiate Licensing Company and Saint Louis University is required for usage.

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