A Billiken Company ad from 1909. (Courtesy of History of Early American Automobile Industry, 1861-1929, by Royal Feltner)
Back in 1910, being a motorist wasn’t at all easy. Cars broke down or got stuck on the terrible roads of the day, and on any trip of five or 10 miles you were sure to experience at least one flat tire. However, for the sum of only $5 you could purchase a little brass talisman that, when affixed to the hood of your car, would protect you from all these hazards.
In 1908, an illustrator and art teacher in Kansas City named Florence Pretz drew a fanciful creature she named “Billiken.” Ms. Pretz claimed to have seen the pixie-like little man in a dream and drew him as sitting with his short legs stretched out in front of him and his bare toes pointed up. His face had slanted eyes and a broad, mischievous smile, and he had pointed ears and a tuft of hair on his pointy head, while his short arms were straight down at his sides.
The design was sold to the Billiken Company of New York City, who proceeded to advertise the Billiken character as “The God of Things as They Ought to Be,” that would bring good luck to anyone who owned one.
The Billiken caught the imagination of the American public, and dolls, coin banks, good luck charms and other depictions of the little guy sold like wildfire. Etilmon Justice (E.J.) Stark even wrote and published sheet music in 1913 for a ragtime piano number called the “Billiken Rag,” and Blanche Ring, a popular singer and actress of the era sang a song called “The Billiken Man.” The chorus of the song went: “Billiken, Billiken, you funny creation, you look so cute that you’ve a queer fascination; Smile upon me I want to be as lucky as I can be. ‘Cause you’re the God of all things as they ought to be. Funny, sunny, all the money, the Billiken man, the Billiken Man.” Catchy, isn’t it?
Naturally, given the state of motoring in those days, the Billiken Company soon introduced a Billiken Man that could be affixed to the hood of an automobile. It was announced in a 1909 issue of Automobile Topics magazine as follows.
“Billiken, the God of Motor Cars”
“If you set me on your car, You may travel near and far;
Fully warranted ‘gainst all forms of disaster; Nails will not cut through your shoes,
You can speed just as you choose, Every policeman will beg you to go faster.
I’m the God of Motor cars, I control the Lucky stars,
Breaks and accidents no longer will assail you.
Place me on your engine hood, and I’ll bring no end of good,
For a hundred years I promise not to fail you.”
“Billiken is to undertake the conquest of the automobile. The merry little god of things-as-they-ought-to-be, who, it is said, has pervaded the earth like a sunbeam, making everybody better and happier for his coming, is now to essay the role of God of Motor Cars.
“To drop metaphor, Billiken is to be placed on the market in solid brass, designed to be screwed on the radiator cap or dashboard of an automobile.
“The Billiken Sales Company, 90 Centre Street, New York, is to undertake the task of popularizing the quaint little graven image.
“It is confidently asserted that with Billiken in your car the puncture fiend will take flight, and all the other ills which afflict the motorist about every so often will be conspicuous by their absence.”
The story included the original design drawing of the jolly and care-free little god over the caption: “Billiken. The-God-of-Things-as-They-Ought-to-Be. Tickle His Toes and See Him Smile.”
Although the Billiken fad soon died out, his likeness was adopted by St. Louis University as their mascot and he remains so today, although now he’s not as rotund and wears an SLU sweater.
I’ve visited several car museums over the years, some of which have had collections of radiator ornaments, but I don’t recall ever seeing an example of a Billiken. Have any of you?– Sam Moore