and the "Paul Bunyan" Machine

In 1996, there was a discussion on the origin of Paul Bunyan on the Disney comics Mailing List. Tryg Helseth wrote: "Paul Bunyan was a giant woodsman that was the focus of many highly exaggerated tall tales. Allegedly these stories were told by the men at lumber camps who tried to outdo each other with the most outrageous story. There is some doubt, though, that these stories originated from lumber camps. Disney had a short film, "The Legend of Paul Bunyan" that told the more popular stories of Paul."

Don Markstein replied: "Actually, the Paul Bunyan "legend" goes back only to the 1920s, when he was a character in a series of advertisements. (I forget what product.) The "tall tales" about him aren't authentic examples of this American folklore genre, but actually contained an advertising message. Somehow, the commercial connection was forgotten -- by the 1950s, when I was in school, he was widely believed to be an actual example of American folklore. (Another character with a similar history is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, who was created in 1939 to advertise Macy's Department Store.)"

David Gerstein replied: "I'm not actually sure of this. I looked in the OCLC Interlibrary-loan electronic catalogue at my school here, to see how far back books about Paul Bunyan dated. Actually, one library has some newspaper articles (not ads, articles) discussing the legend, from November 1920's Seattle Star issues. The next thing I find is a 235-page book from 1924 by Esther Shepard, retelling some legends about the character. Also in 1924 appeared a completely different collection of stories about him, with over 200 pages, too. And then in 1925 there are two MORE collections of stories.

What I wonder is whether the character did exist in legend, but was trademarked by some company as an advertising symbol earlier than you said -- maybe in the late 1800s? -- and only became public domain in 1924. That would explain a sudden spate of books collecting the stories. (Although it doesn't explain the lack of any materials on the character from before 1920.) Much of the post-1950s material on the character stems from Disney, who did their version in 1959. I had no idea Disney had merchandised their take on the legend so much, but they have.

I'll do some more checking. You're right on the money, though, about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- this is an advertising character, all right, and Macy's, as far as I can figure out, pulled a royal boner when they didn't renew their rights to the character, or something. He's just become a modern-day addition to various Christmas legends of yore."

Gerstein continued in another e-mail: "I did a little research into this. Hal Morgan's 1986 book "Symbols of America" has a brief synopsis of how W. B. Laughead, an advertising executive for the Red River Logging Co. in 1914, "drew on the many exaggerated stories he had heard [in the northwoods] and attached them to the single character of 'Paul Bunyan.' The lumber company found the giant to be so popular that they expanded his adventures into a promotional booklet..."

Morgan's book (maybe this is what you read, Don?) was truthfully somewhat inadequately researched. Actually, a lengthy series of interviews with Laughead and others, done for historical research magazines in the late 1930s, established that the tradition of "exaggerated stories" had commonly used the name Paul Bunyan -- it was not merely Laughead who came up with the name, nor was the character inconsistantly named before 1914 (as Morgan implies). Several of the interviewees in the late-1930s study referred to having heard the stories around 1900.

One thing IS true -- Laughead's book of the stories, published in 1914, is the earliest actual COLLECTION of them; also the medium by which the character established real fame in the modern age. (And since Red River only trademarked the character with respect to their wood products, everyone could jump on the bandwagon by collecting the stories themselves.)"

In Eau Clair, WI (Wisconsin, VS) there is a Paul Bunyan park, where statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox babe stand outside. In a January 15, 2001 e-mail to this site, Dave Mullenix wrote: "Just a note - I saw your piece on the origin of the Paul Bunyan stories and you mentioned a giant statue of him near Eau Claire, WI. I saw those statues when I was in grade school, back in the fifties. I still remember them, especially Babe, who was big enough to walk under, at least if you were a grade school kid. I have no idea if they're still there, but I hope they are. Maybe I'll drive up that way this summer and take a look. Wonder if I can still walk under Babe's belly."

The "Paul Bunyan Logging Camp" has a website at

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