What’s A Billiken? The Strange Explanation Of Saint Louis University’s Head-Scratching Mascot

At SLU, the Billiken is a 'way of life.'

this is a billiken
Wilson Delgado / Wikimedia Commons (GPL)

At SLU, the Billiken is a 'way of life.'

Saint Louis University’s Billikens will take on Virginia Tech today, and fans may be confused by the Jesuit institution’s head-scratching mascot. What the heck is a Billiken, anyway?

Ask that question in St. Louis and you’ll likely get one of three responses. You may get a dirty look, as people of the city are rather sick of the question. You may get a confused shrug, as relatively few people in the town, at least off campus, have a clue. Or if you ask the right people, you’ll get something resembling the correct answer, if indeed there even is a correct answer.

Had you asked “What’s a Billiken?” a century ago, you would have gotten the answer immediately, as Billikens were all the rage at the time, according to The Church of Good Luck. A Billiken was, and is, a sort of charm doll created by Kansas City artist Florence Pretz. With pointed ears, a cheeky grin, a tuft of hair on his pointed head, and looking like something resembling a cross between a monkey and a demon, the doll supposedly brought good luck to its owner.

For a while, Billikens and related merchandise were the must-have items in every home, especially in the Midwest. There were dolls, candies, metal banks, hatpins, belt buckles, kitchen gewgaws, and who knows what else. But like all pop-culture fads, the Billiken’s 15 minutes of fame ended after a while, to be quickly forgotten about.

this is the original billiken
  Marguerite Martyn / Wikimedia Commons (GPL)

So why did SLU choose the Billiken as their mascot?

Their are several theories, two of which the university provides as examples on its website.

One involves an SLU law student named John Bender, who took over the school’s football team in 1910. Rumor has it that Bender resembled the monkey demon talisman and supposedly a St. Louis cartoonist drew a caricature of him. That picture wound up in the window of a local drug store, and soon the football team was being referred to as “Bender’s Billikens.”

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Another theory, which also references Bender and a druggist, claims that the coach walked into a drug store one day to be greeted enthusiastically by its manager, Billy Gunn. “Bender, you’re a real Billiken!” Gunn supposedly said, and for reasons that aren’t clear the football team picked up the name.

The “Billiken Way of Life”

Not for nothing, at SLU it’s not just athletes who adopt the Billiken as a mascot, says the university.

“Today, the Billiken is more than an athletics mascot; Saint Louis University students have tied the Billiken to the University’s mission. Now being a Billiken is a way of life.”