Look Closer: Mickey Mouse Memorabilia from the 1920s & 30s

Posted on Mon, 11/28/2011 - 06:00

In the fall of 1929, when Walt was in New York City meeting with his then-distributor, Pat Powers, he was repeatedly approached by a man with an unusual request. As Walt told the story, “… a fellow kept hanging around my hotel waving $300 at me and saying that he wanted to put the Mouse on the paper tablets children use in school. As usual, Roy and I needed money, so I took the $300.” Even though no record of this transaction can be found in the files of The Walt Disney Company, Walt’s brother, Roy, verified the story just before Walt died.

In Robert Tieman’s Book, The Mickey Mouse Treasures, the author states, "This transaction not only provided the cash-strapped Disney brothers with some quick money, but also suggested to them there might be other ways to exploit Mickey’s image on products. Thus began a revolution in cartoon-character merchandise."

In addition, Walt had been scarred by what he considered the theft of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and was determined to protect his sole rights to his new character. "We developed the merchandizing to a point more from that angle [to protect the characters], not realizing its money potentials," Roy O. Disney recalled in a 1968 interview.

For the month of November when Mickey Mouse’s birthday is officially celebrated, the Interpreters focused on a variety of merchandise created and sold by manufacturers in the 1920s and ‘30s to promote the famous mouse.

Displayed in gallery 2B in a large case covering most of one wall, The Walt Disney Family Museum’s collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia provides an impressive glimpse of the range of merchandise that was available during the early part of the last century. From porcelain figurines and wind-up toys to games and phonographs, the items are a testament to a time when the world was swept up in a new craze, and character merchandise was a novelty. The fact that Mickey Mouse memorabilia was so popular is also one of the reasons why it comprises nearly five percent of the Walt Disney Family Museum’s overall collection.

Among the 86 items in the case, a few are worthy of special note. The Lionel Mickey Mouse Handcar, for instance, located on a shelf to the left in the case, was a toy that had a huge impact on the fate of its manufacturer. First produced for the 1934 Christmas shopping season, the tin wind-up handcar with Mickey and Minnie Mouse at the handles is credited with saving the Lionel Corporation from bankruptcy. This small toy, which came with a 27-inch circle of track and sold for one dollar a set, was extremely popular upon release, and in four months, 253,000 sets were sold. Though the sale of the handcars accounted for only five percent of Lionel’s business during the latter part of 1934, it was because of Mickey’s association with the company that other Lionel products were suddenly in demand, and subsequent sales of these toys helped move the company into the black.

The Mickey Mouse watch, of which the Museum is currently displaying six (along with three clocks), is another example of phenomenal merchandising success. Arguably the most popular Mickey item ever, sales from this watch are also credited with saving a company. In the early ‘30s the Ingersoll-Waterbury Company was close to bankruptcy when it was given the license to manufacture watches with the famous mouse on the face. According to Bob Thomas in Walt Disney, An American Original, “Within weeks, demand for the watches caused the company to raise the number of employees at its Waterbury, Connecticut, plant from three hundred to three thousand. Two and a half million Mickey Mouse watches were sold within two years.” Not long after, the popular watch with Mickey’s hands pointing out the time was chosen by officials at the 1939 New York World’s Fair to be buried in the official Time Capsule.

Three other items worth locating for a longer look are a rare 1928 Mickey Mouse mascot and two original Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouse dolls. The first piece, which is a treasured hood ornament featuring a winking Mickey Mouse with a thumbs-up, came from a private collector in England and was acquired at an auction. It is engraved with the words, “Reproduced with consent of Walter E. Disney” and is our museum’s latest acquisition for the gallery display. Visitors can find it in the lower left side of the case. To the far right and above, is a shelf holding several Mickey Mouse dolls made of fabric. The largest dolls on the left are ones fashioned by Ms. Clark, who was the first to manufacture a stuffed Mickey doll approved by Walt and Roy Disney. Demand for the dolls increased to the point where the Disney brothers eventually gave their blessing to the release of a McCall's Sewing Pattern of the character doll for the public.

Finally, in the far right area of the case, visitors can see artifacts relating to the first Mickey Mouse Club dating from 1930, something that often surprises people who grew up with the popular 1950s television program. Here are displayed a number of items from that early time, such as club buttons, membership card, campaign book and a document outlining the procedure for “A Mickey Mouse Ritual.” Below, there is also information about the man who was the genius behind the marketing of Mickey Mouse merchandise in the early 1930s, Herman “Kay” Kamen. Roy Disney said, “Kay walked in one day and said, ‘I don’t know how much business you’re doing, but I’ll guarantee you that much business and give you 50% of everything I do over.’ We made a deal with him. He was a merchandizing-minded fellow. He did a terrific job for us."

Collectors and fans of Mickey Mouse memorabilia are grateful that Walt and his brother Roy did, in fact, seal the deal.



Mary Beth Culler
Museum Interpreter