What is a Billiken? Unmasking SLU's Cool and Unusual Mascot
Often called one of the coolest or most unusual campus mascots in the country, the Billiken's history -- and how it became affiliated with Saint Louis University-- remains debatable to this day.
Several details seem to be certain. Everyone agrees that the Billiken is a good-luck figure who represents "things as they ought to be." The designer of the Billiken also seems to be fact. Florence Pretz, a Missouri art teacher and illustrator, patented her "design for an image" of the jovial creature in 1908.
|The Billiken in action.|
It's also known that the Billiken was manufactured in the early 1900s as a bank and statuette and was the national rage for about six months -- kind of that period's pet rock. During this time, the Billiken was turned into all sorts of things: dolls, marshmallow candies, metal banks, hatpins, pickle forks, belt buckles, auto hood ornaments, salt and pepper shakers and glass bottles.
That's about where the certainty ends, however.
It is believed that Pretz found the name Billiken in a poem by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman and gave the name to her patented design, which she sold to the Billiken Company of Chicago. It is not confirmed if the firm acquired its name from the Billiken or if it was an established name before the company bought the rights from Pretz's invention.
By 1912, the Billiken and its value as a good-luck charm were just memories for all except the loyal fans of Saint Louis University. How the Billiken became attached to the University is perhaps the primary debate.
The uniting of SLU and the Billiken seems to have happened sometime between 1910 and 1911 at the height of Billikenmania.
Each story of the Billiken connection with Saint Louis University stems from SLU law student and football coach John Bender and his remarkable likeness to the image of the Billiken.
|The Billiken statue.|
One story reports that a St. Louis sports writer decided that Bender resembled the Billiken. Later, a cartoonist drew a caricature of the coach in the form of a Billiken and posted it in the window of a drugstore. The football team soon became known as "Bender's Billikens."
Another version of the story begins in a 1946 obituary that speaks of the death of Billy Gunn (say the name quickly) who owned a drug store close to SLU. A short, bespectacled man with a lively wit, Gunn was friend and confidant to SLU players and coaches. Said the obituary, "Gunn gave the Saint Louis University athletic teams their nicknames. 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."
Yet another story gives an alternate perspective. During a 1953 dinner honoring Charles Z. McNamara and William O'Connor, a different story was told: One afternoon at practice, as McNamara and O'Connor looked on, Bender was all smiles. Bender's broad grin and squinty eyes so impressed O'Connor that he exclaimed, "Why, Bender's a regular Billiken!"
McNamara later drew the cartoon of Bender in the form of a Billiken and posted it in a drugstore window near the practice field.
"It doesn't bother me that there are multiple versions of the Billiken story," said University archivist John Waide. "That's the way history goes. It's a constant search for the truth that will take considerable research, and we may never know exactly what is true."
However the story is told, Billikens always possess cheery personalities, broad smiles and rotund bellies. They bring luck to Saint Louis University's sports teams and smiles to the faces of SLU fans.
One last point on Billiken luck: To buy a Billiken gives the purchaser luck, but to have one given to you is better luck.