The Billiken is the official school mascot for the Saint Louis University, a Jesuit run institution located at One North Grand in St. Louis, Missori. It is also the mascot for St. Louis High School.
Created in 1908 by Florence Perez, an Kansas City, Missouri art teacher and illustrator, the Billiken is a cross between Buddha and a Kewpie Doll. The chubby character with elfish ears, fat cheeks and an ear-to-ear grin is considered a good-luck figure who represents “things as they ought to be.”
According to Ms. Perez, the idea for the Billiken came to her in a dream. 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.”
Being business-minded, Perez patented the design for the elf-like creature with pointed ears, a mischievous smile and a tuft of hair on his pointed head and soon Billikens were appearing everywhere in America from dolls, marshmallow candies, metal banks, hatpins, pickle forks, belt buckles, auto hood ornaments, salt and pepper shakers and glass bottles.
To buy a Billiken was said to give the purchaser luck, but to have one given would be better luck.
Reportedly, more than 200,000 Billiken dolls were created by an American toy company in less than a year. Even L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wizard of Oz” kept a Billiken doll on his piano.
The Billiken craze inspired several songs, including “The Billiken Rag” and the “Billiken Man Song” penned in 1909 by E. Ray Goetz:
Once a fat man went a-swimmin, (Where?)
From the surf he tripped,
He was flirtin’ with some woman, (When?)
When his new suit ripped.
As he sat down in the sand,
He said, “Billikens don’t stand.”
(Why?) I’m a Billiken Man,
(Oh!) a Billiken Man.
A few years later, the Billikenmania fad faded away but not before someone from SLU commented that John Bender, a football coach at the school reminded them of a Billiken. Soon his team would be called “Bender’s Billikens, and a campus mascot was born.
Over the years, students at St. Louis University have tied the school mascot to the University’s Jesuit mission. Today, being a Billiken is a way of life. During athletic events, the crowd chants, “Go Bills! Go Bills! Go Bills Go!”
A bronze statue of a Billken was placed atop a pedestal on SLU’s University mall. It became a tradition for students who passed by the statue to rub the Billiken’s bronze belly and the soles of its feet for luck. The statue was later moved closer to the Chaifetz Arena to the right of all the flags.
In recent years, two SLU fans dressed in a Billiken suit during a 13.1 mile New York Marathon. One began the race along with 15,000 other runners. At the half way point the original runner slipped out of the costume as the second runner donned the Billiken suit and finished the race. Their combined time: two hours and three minutes.
NOTE: During the early 1900s, the Billiken inspired the nicknames of several minor league professional baseball teams, including the Fort Wayne Billikens, the Montgomery Billikens, the Bay City Billikens, and the McLeansboro Billikens.
The Billiken was also adopted as the official mascot of the Royal Order of Jesters, an invitation only Shriner group, affiliated with Freemasonry. In 1911, the founders of the Royal Order of Jesters declared the Billiken their mascot during a trip to the Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Billiken, became a huge hit in Japan, and was enshrined in Luna Park in the Shinsekai district of Osaka as a large wooden statue that stood there from 1912 until the park closed in 1923 when it was stolen. A replica of the statue now stands in the Tsutenkaku Tower. The sculpture is now revered as a god of fortune and business prosperity for the Shinsekai area where visitors donate coins and rub its feet, and make a wish to the Billiken statues found in the area.
A Billiken statue appeared in several scenes of the movie “Waterloo Bridge” (1940), starring Robert Taylor and Vivian Leigh as a plot device that sparks flashbacks of the character’s lives.
In Alaska, Eskimos render the Billiken in carvings as good luck charms.
On the south side of Chicago, Illinois, the annual Bud Billiken Parade honors Bud Billiken, a fictional character created in 1923 by Robert S. Abbott. Abbott created a newspaper column (“Billiken Column”) after he noticed a Billiken statue while dining at a Chinese Restaurant. During the Great Depression, the Bud Billiken character served as a symbol of pride, happiness and hope for black residents. The character gained prominence in a comic strip and the Chicago Defender newspaper.
Saint Louis University
One North Grand
St. Louis, MO 63103 USA