If you walk through the Saint Louis University campus, you’ll almost certainly run into their unusual mascot, the Billiken, in some form. The Billiken is a pointy-headed, grinning imp covered in white fur, and it’s everywhere: banners, statues—even parking spaces outside the admissions office are reserved for future Billikens.
As SLU is in the midst of celebrating its founding 200 years ago, an in-depth look at the university's unusual mascot seemed timely.
What exactly is a Billiken?
A sampling of SLU students at the student center had a guess.
“I think that’s something everybody asks themselves,” said sophomore Avery Lubbes.
Sophomore Sam Kroening thought it might be a bear or a mythological creature, and junior Kayla Miller called it “a good luck charm.”
John Waide, the archivist emeritus at SLU who’s researched the Billiken, had the answer.
“The general definition of a Billiken,” Waide said, “is the god of things as they should be.”
Who created the Billiken?
According to Waide, the Billiken was patented in 1908 by Florence Pretz, a 21-year-old art student from Kansas City.
“She claims she was inspired for the whole notion of a Billiken from reading the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” Waide explained. “After reading the Rubaiyat, she was going to make an image that she said embodied hope and happiness, to sort of live up to.”
Pretz’s design didn’t look very much like the Billikens around Saint Louis University today. The original Billiken looked more like a fat baby.
“The pointy little head and the little tuft of hair coming out of the top, a roly-poly face; normally you would see him on his behind with his feet out and you’d see the bottoms of his feet, almost in a Buddha-like pose,” Waide said of the Billiken’s original design.
There’s actually some doubt as to whether it was really Pretz who came up with the Billiken character, or its baby Buddha design. An indigenous artist in Alaska was making very similar figurines in the early 1900s, and there’s also an Argentinian children’s magazine called Billiken that started in the early 1910s. But Pretz acquired the American patent on the god of things as they should be, and she sold exclusive manufacturing rights to a company in Chicago. The company saw the potential of her new deity as merchandise.
“Postcards, watch fobs, belt buckles, little cups…they were putting the Billiken on everything,” Waide said.
The company, however, cheated Pretz out of money, and she’s reported to have said she never wanted to see a Billiken again. To add insult to injury, Billikens became a huge fad across the United States.
Waide compared Billiken-mania to a similar fad today.
“I guess maybe Pokemon,” he said. In other words, if St. Louis University were founded today, its mascot might be the Pikachu.
How did the Billiken become SLU’s mascot?
At the end of the 19th century, when SLU’s football team was founded, most college teams didn’t have mascots.
“Saint Louis U. had athletic teams—certainly football in the 1890s,” Waide said. “They would simply be called the Blue and the Whites, because those were the school colors.”
The Blue and the Whites, though, were a good team. The 1904 and 1906 teams were undefeated. In 1910, SLU hired a new football coach, a law student named John Bender. Bender led SLU’s team for two winning seasons. And his narrow eyes and broad smirk of a smile reminded people of a Billiken.
Charlie McNamara, one of Bender’s fellow law students, drew a cartoon of the coach in the form of a Billiken and put it in the window of a local drugstore.
“As people saw this picture,” Waide explained, “They said, ‘Oh, there’s Bender and his Billikens,’” referring to the SLU football team.
Around that time, Billy O’Connor, a sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, referred to SLU’s team as the Billikens, and the name stuck. Was there any objection from SLU’s Jesuit leadership to their new mascot—a god who wasn’t God? Waide was not sure, but he didn’t come across any in his research.
As the years went on, the Billiken became a more and more prominent symbol of the university. It also became more and more stylized.
“It became a little more impish—almost a Grinch-like character,” Waide said.
The 2016 redesign of the Billiken was so impish that many people thought it was too scary. After a social media backlash, SLU’s president, Fred Pestello, issued an invitation to the university community to vote on a new Billiken design...in the form of a tongue-in-cheek campaign ad.
Decision 2016: Time to weigh in on the new, new Billiken mascot costume. I need your input. WATCH: pic.twitter.com/BG5UMBuCGW
— Fred P. Pestello (@SLUPresident) November 1, 2016
A personal connection to the Billiken
“We’re the only school in the country that has that mascot,” Waide said. “We use ‘Be a Billiken’ as a way to connect people with the school, but also to how we can make things a little bit better. The Jesuit motto: ‘for the greater glory of God,’ is about always doing more, and I think that is connected to the Billiken—these are the way things are supposed to be.”
SLU sophomore Avery Lubbes agreed.
“I think a Billiken is not just a mascot,” he said, “but it says a lot about who we are and what our mission is.”
The Billiken has certainly come a long way as Saint Louis University’s mascot. What started out as a nationwide fad and a joke about a strange-looking football coach became an enduring symbol of hope and possibility for generations of students.
What: Saint Louis University’s “Legends and Lore” lecture series
When: Thursday, October 26 2017, at noon
Where: Pius XII Memorial Library, 3650 Lindell Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63108
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.