Saint Louis University has a long storied place in Missouri history. The University’s College of Arts and Science traces its origins to the St. Louis Academy. Established in 1818, the academy was the first institution of higher education west of the Mississippi River. Saint Louis University received its formal charter for the state in 1832, becoming the first university in the western half of the United States. It also offered the first graduate programs, medical school, and law department west of the river.
The University’s mascot, the Billiken, is a mythical good-luck creature. Florence Pretz, an art teacher and illustrator in Kansas City, Missouri, first drew the Billiken in 1907. The name Billiken appeared in the 1896 poem, Mr. Moon: A Song of the Little People, by Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey. In the poem, Billikens are listed among the little people taunting the moon along with other creatures such as Honey-bug, Thistledrift, Whit-imp, and Wryface. Pretz patented her Billiken design in 1908 as “the god of things as they out to be” and sold her patent to the Craftsman’s Guild of Chicago. The Billiken first appeared in an advertisement in the Chicago Daily Tribune on May 3, 1908, and it soon became an international icon appearing on a variety of merchandise all over the world.
No official records document how the Billiken became connected with Saint Louis University, but many of the surviving stories involve John Bender, the University’s football coach beginning in 1910. According to the accounts, Bender had a physical resemblance to a Billiken. One story credited a cartoonist for drawing Bender as a Billiken. The sketch was posted in a local drugstore, and thereafter people began calling the team “Bender’s Billikens.” Another story also involves a drugstore near the University. A 1946 obituary reported the following interaction, “Coach Bender walked into Mr. [Billy] 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 were known as the Billikens.”
Creator: Florence Pretz
Subject: Universities and colleges; Art; Pretz, Florence; Saint Louis University
Contributing Institution: Chicago Tribune
Region: St. Louis Metro
Publication Date: May 3, 1908