When Winnipeg-created Punkinhead made Canadian retail history for Eaton’s

Winnie-the-Pooh isn’t the only famous — or partly-clothed — bear with ties to Winnipeg. For a while in the 1940s and ’50s, he wasn’t even the most beloved.

The affection, instead, was directed at a mop-topped misfit cub named Punkinhead.

Born on a drawing board in Winnipeg’s West End, Punkinhead came from the pen of cartoonist Charles Thorson.

The bear with the felt knickers became a mid-century phenomenon, a cherished symbol from the baby boomer generation and a rival to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

“To say Punkinhead took off is an understatement. He was featured in a story about the little bear who ends up leading the [Santa Claus] parade and in a dozen other little books,” Roy MacGregor wrote in a Globe and Mail article in 2007.

Punkinhead sketch (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections/Charlie Thorson fonds)

The Punkinhead idea took root in 1947, when executives at the Toronto headquarters for Eaton’s department store decided to take a page from U.S.-based retailer Montgomery Ward.

Eight years earlier, in 1939, the latter had introduced the world to Rudolph through colouring books given out each Christmas to attract shoppers into its store. The flying reindeer became a wildly successful marketing mascot.

So Eaton’s came up with the idea of a teddy bear who would be Santa’s favourite little helper. They took their story idea to Thorson, someone they knew well. 

From 1914 until 1934, he had been chief illustrator for the Eaton’s catalogue, as goods were all hand-drawn. At that time Thorson worked for Brigdens of Winnipeg Ltd, a graphic design firm, which produced the catalogue.

Punkinhead debuted in 1948 in the story Punkinhead: The Sad Little Bear. (Canadian Animation, Cartooning and Illustration)

When he left Brigden’s in late 1934, Thorson became an innovative figure in the development of animation in the United States. He moved to California to try his hand in cartooning and was hired on the spot by Walt Disney himself.

During his time south of the border, Thorson eventually designed and developed characters at nearly every major Hollywood animation studio before shifting to studios in Miami and then New York.

He would dream up and draw the characters in a range of poses and then studio animators would bring them alive. 

Among his creations are Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Snow White and six of the Seven Dwarfs (the seventh, Dopey, was added later), Sniffles the Mouse, Little Hiawatha and more than 100 characters and creatures for an ill-fated animated TV series called The Stone Age. That cartoon would eventually be produced as The Flintstones.

He also redesigned Popeye and the Raggedy Ann and Andy characters.

A page from one of the many booklets handed out to kids, How Punkinhead Came to Toyland. (collectorsweekly.com)

After his U.S. sojourn, Thorson — who gained the moniker of Cartoon Charlie — returned to his birth city of Winnipeg in 1946. He settled into a rooming house in the West End and and was looking for work just as Eaton’s was hatching its mascot idea.

Working with the Eaton’s story outline, Thorson designed the bear and came up with the name — a term of endearment he used for his own son.

The a mop-topped cub debuted in 1948 in the story Punkinhead: The Sad Little Bear, a hard-luck tale with strong echoes of the origin story of Rudolph, who was mocked and shunned for his light-up nose.

Punkinhead lived in Bear Land but stood out due to a shock of floppy, ginger-blond hair. The unruly ‘do wouldn’t stay down, no matter how much he tried to slick it back.

He was jeered and ostracised and left alone.

Eaton’s Mail Order Christmas Book, 1954-55 (Archives of Ontario/T. Eaton Co. fonds)

Then just before Christmas, Santa and his crew of fairies, gnomes, clowns and elves were on their way from the North Pole to Toyland (Eaton’s) when they made a pit stop for some honey soda drinks at Bear Land.

One of the clowns in Santa’s upcoming parade overindulged and was stricken with a roaring tummy ache.

Santa turned to the bears to find a last-minute replacement. They tried to fill the role but the clown hat kept slipping off the velvety smooth heads of the bears. All of them except for one. Punkinhead’s knot of hair kept it in place.

From that moment, he became an important part of the Santa Claus Parade, first appearing in the Toronto event — the largest Christmas parade in North America — in 1948.

WATCH | Punkinhead and Santa in an Eaton’s ad from 1955

Punkinhead was a smash success and became a major feature in Eaton’s parade in Winnipeg as well. Cheers for the little bear easily matched those for Santa, and soon Punkinhead was promoted to the highest profile spot in the parade — in the sled as as Santa’s sidekick.

His image became a ubiquitous part of Eaton’s Christmas advertising for the next decade. His image was on everything and used to sell millions of dollars worth of merchandise.

It was branded on high chairs, rocking horses, hats, watches, baby bottle warmers, bibs, bedside lamps, pyjamas, balls, bath towels and bowls, snowsuits, sweaters, slippers and much more.

There were posters and TV commercials, and Eaton’s even created a song about him and sold recordings of it.

Punkinhead items for sale in a 1950s Eaton’s catalogue. (eBay.com)

A series of Punkinhead stories were published every year until 1959, and given to kids who visited Santa at Toyland in the department stores.

Punkinhead was the most successful advertising character in Canadian retail history, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

And of course, there were teddy bears. The originals were made in England — specifically for Eaton’s — of mohair, stuffed with fine wood shavings, and fitted with glass eyes, a tuft of shaggy hair and little shorts.

Those originals, produced from 1948 until the mid-1950s by a company called Merrythought, have become collectors’ items, selling between $1,200 to $2,000 and as high as $5,000, according to a Maclean’s magazine article from March 2003.

Charlie Thorson was born in Winnipeg but grew up in Gimli before moving back to the big city in his late teens to make a living. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections/Charlie Thorson fonds)

Unlike the enduring enchantment of Rudolph, who has become ingrained in the Christmas season, Punkinhead’s appeal eventually faded.

He continued to appear in the Santa Claus parade until 1982, when Eaton’s ended its association with the event. It had been paying for the parade from the start — 1905 in Toronto and 1909 in Winnipeg — but could no longer afford it.

Eaton’s briefly revived Punkinhead in 1992 as the retail giant struggled to win back its customer base, which had dwindled from the store’s heydays.

The nostalgia didn’t help much. The 130-year-old company declared bankruptcy just seven years later. Its assets were purchased by Sears, which ran a number of stores under the Eaton’s banner until 2002 when the brand vanished.

This Punkinhead bear, circa 1951, sold at auction by Christie’s in 2002, fetching just over $1,800 CDN. (Christies.com)

As for Thorson, he missed out cashing in on his creation. He was a man with a history of poor decisions and burning bridges with employers — including confronting Disney, then quitting over a lack of screen credits for his work.

Though he could likely have retired on Punkinhead royalties, Thorson had sold the copyright to Eaton’s for $1 in 1949, according to the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, which contains much of his work.

In fact, Thorson was only involved in the illustrations and story ideas for the first three Punkinhead booklets before his temper got the best of him, leading to an unceremonious parting ways with Eaton’s.

According to Gene Walz’s book, Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson, the artist was drunk during a party at the Fort Garry Hotel and got into an argument with an Eaton’s executive. Thorson threw a punch and was promptly fired.

Example of a letter that kids received from Santa Claus in the 1950s, when they sent their own letters to the big guy through Eatons. (Archives of Ontario/T. Eaton Co. fonds)

In 1952, down on his luck and looking for work, Thorson designed Elmer the Safety Elephant for the Toronto police department’s traffic-safety program.

He struggled to find animation work beyond that and eventually finished his career where it began — in Winnipeg doing advertising that appeared on billboards, magazines, newspapers and TV.

After retiring, he moved to Vancouver to be closer to his son in 1956. He died there decade later at age 75.

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