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.

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.

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.