March 04, 2014

What is a Billiken?

The facts behind SLU's iconic mascot.

What is a Billiken? Saint Louis University's mascot doesn't just bring team spirit. He's a symbol of good luck on campus and around the world. Read on for the history behind the Billiken, and then test your smarts with our quiz.

The BillikenWhat is a Billiken?
The Billiken is a good-luck figure who represents "things as they ought to be."

Before he was Saint Louis University's mascot, he was a national sensation, a figure who was turned into dolls, marshmallow candies, metal banks, hatpins, pickle forks, belt buckles, auto hood ornaments, salt and pepper shakers, bottles and more. Though they look a little different in each version, Billikens always possess cheery personalities, broad smiles and rotund bellies.

BillikenWho invented the Billiken?
Florence Pretz, a Missouri art teacher and illustrator, patented her "design for an image" of the Billiken in 1908. 

She later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I concluded if there is a chance that we shape our own lives, and my clay was mine to fashion as I would, I might as well make an image, which embodied hope and happiness to sort of live up to."

The BillikenWhen did the Billiken become SLU's mascot?
No one is sure exactly when the Billiken first became linked to SLU.

There are several popular stories, all of which tie the Billiken to John Bender, who took over coaching SLU's football team in 1910, and his resemblance to the cheery good luck symbol. According to one, a cartoonist drew a caricature of the coach in the form of a Billiken and posted it in the window of a local drugstore. The football team soon became known as "Bender's Billikens."

Another version of the story says that Billy Gunn, who ran a drug store near Saint Louis University, was responsible for the link. 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."

The Billiken Where else is the Billiken found?
SLU is the only university to claim the Billiken as its mascot. He's a noted good luck charm in other parts of the world, though.

In Alaska, Eskimos render the Billiken in carvings as good luck charms. In Osaka, Japan, a wooden Billiken statue sits in Tsutenkaku Tower, where visitors rub his feet for good luck. And on the south side of Chicago, Ill. the school year can't start without the annual Bud Billiken Parade.

The BillikenHow has the Billiken changed over the years?
First, the physical changes: SLU's athletic mascot as he stands now is a pretty fit fellow, decked out in a blue T-shirt. Older versions of the Billiken are decidedly rotund.

But at Saint Louis University, students have tied the school mascot to the University's Jesuit mission. Now being a Billiken is a way of life. See what they have to say in this video.

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