House of Mouse: Collecting The Wonderful World Of Disneyana
“I only hope we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.” Walt Disney once famously said this about his legendary and iconic star, Mickey Mouse.
However, as far as Disney collectors are concerned, the quote could be “… it all started with a writing tablet.”
Not long after the debut of Mickey Mouse in the very first sound cartoon short, Steamboat Willie (released in 1928), a man approached Walt in a hotel lobby. He offered the burgeoning filmmaker $300 to use Mickey’s image on a children’s writing tablet. With his studio just starting, Walt needed money, and he agreed.
Walt not only got the revenue he needed, but he also began to see the power of products as a vehicle to promote his characters.
The pencil tablet was the first piece of Disney merchandise, and with it, a true phenomenon was born. Today, collecting Disney — or “Disneyana,” as it’s called — includes millions of collectors worldwide, paying stratospheric prices for rare pieces. There have been conventions and clubs devoted exclusively to Disneyana collecting.
With titles spanning 1927 to 1961 — featuring iconic characters like Mickey Mouse, as well as forgotten ones like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — the collection of shorts will be rolled out in monthly batches leading up to Disney's 100th anniversary in October 2023.
Over 90 years after Mickey’s debut, the latest Disney product announcement now sends many social media influencers into a frenzy of communication, as the Walt Disney Company has moved well beyond the mouse that started it all.
Disney has so much history and product that the company opened the Walt Disney Archives to house and chronicle all of it over 50 years ago. The Archives’ fundamental purpose is to curate items and information from the Disney Company’s rich legacy. This includes preserving a number of the earliest pieces of Disney merchandise, such as the very first Mickey Mouse stuffed toy, produced in 1930 and nicknamed “the Charlotte Clark doll,” after the woman who designed it.
These dolls were so popular that supply couldn’t keep up with the demand. Walt allowed McCall’s Magazine to publish the doll’s pattern and sell it for 35 cents so that if fans wanted, they could make their own Mickey Mouse doll at home.
Then, there was the now-iconic Mickey Mouse watch, which the Ingersoll-Waterbury Company created in 1933. The original wristwatch sold for $3.25. Shortly after introducing the timepiece, Macy’s department store in New York City sold 11,000 in one day.
During this time, Walt, always looking ahead, focused on the future of his studio. He looked to differentiate his animation from others in Hollywood, creatively using music in a series of short subjects dubbed Silly Symphonies (which began in 1929) and infusing his characters with personality, as seen in the extremely popular short subject Three Little Pigs in 1933.
Four years later, in December 1937, when Walt debuted the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he made sure that merchandise was on shelves when the film premiered, which became a standard that studios still follow to this day.
Snow White heralded a “golden age” of animation at Disney with the films Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). Each film expanded the boundaries of animation and also brought with them a new wave of Disney merchandise. In the 1950s, Walt branched out into television with his weekly TV series Disneyland debuting in 1954, which brought yet another realm of Disney merchandise and collecting.
After the Disneyland anthology show aired the first episode of Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier on Dec. 15, 1954, merchandise connected with Davy Crockett flew off of store shelves. Proving to be TV’s first surefire phenomenon, Davy Crockett soon had children clamoring for merchandise. In all, $300 million in Crockett product was sold, and coonskin caps, similar to those worn by the show’s hero (played by Fess Parker), became the headwear of choice for children of the ’50s.
The other hat worn by many youngsters during the decade came from Walt’s other TV blockbuster, The Mickey Mouse Club. Like those worn by the “Mouseketeers” on the show, mouse ears became highly sought after for a generation who sported them while gathered around their TV sets.
The original Mickey Mouse Club debuted on Oct. 3, 1955, but mouse ears are still a large part of Disney culture. No longer just plain black, the ears have morphed into multicolored and multi-themed patterns, including seasonally inspired and those fashioned around the latest movie release. According to Business Insider, in 2015 over 84 million Mickey Mouse ears had been sold since 1955.
Souvenirs at Disney Resorts worldwide are always favorites among collectors, as they are a memory of an eagerly anticipated trip.
One category of these souvenirs, trading pins, has become a Disney collecting universe unto itself. What started in 1999 when Disney introduced pins for the “Millennium Celebration” at their parks has become why many visit a Disney theme park.
Today, visitors (or guests, as Disney calls them) can buy pins of Disney characters, attractions and other company icons (some of which are limited edition). Also, Disney employees (the company refers to them as cast members) wear lanyards with pins on them and trade them with guests. Adding another must-have layer is that many of these pins are only available by trading with a cast member.
This multiverse of Disneyana collecting continues to grow and expand each year. It was in the 1970s that collecting Disney products from the past several decades began to catch on. John Gilman, who with Robert Heide co-authored the book Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958, was one of the many who got hooked on Disney during this time. “It seemed like the ’70s became this real nostalgia decade; an antidote to the explosive ’60s,” said Gilman.
Collecting Disney animation art also gained popularity in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These were drawings, cels and other artwork used to produce the studio’s films. In 1955, Disneyland sold matted cels from one of the recent features in their shops with prices ranging from about a $1.50-$3 apiece.
Prices for such animation art today have risen dramatically. A high-water mark came in the late ’90s, when a production celluloid (or cel) from the 1935 Mickey Mouse short The Band Concert (pictured above) was sold for a reported $420,000.
Animation and theme parks continue to contribute to the Disney collecting craze. Additionally, the Walt Disney Company circle has expanded to include characters and films in the Muppets, Star Wars and Marvel universes.
It’s been quite the journey that began with the Mickey Mouse writing tablet over 90 years ago. As this love of Disney continues to be handed down” from one generation to the next, one can’t help but hear the words of Walt Disney: “We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we’re curious. And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”