The world of Disney collectibles encompasses millions of products associated with Walt Disney’s film studio and production company. Often called Disneyana, these items are typically related to films made by Disney, the Disneyland and Disney World theme parks, or the company’s international network of Mickey Mouse Clubs.
After Walt Disney’s first animation studio, Laugh-O-Gram Films, went bankrupt in 1923, Disney moved to Los Angeles to join his brother Roy. There they launched the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, which was renamed Walt Disney Studios in 1926. Mickey, originally dubbed Mortimer, joined the team in 1928 with the big-screen release of “Steamboat Willie.”
The first Mickey Mouse Club got started in Ocean Park, California, in 1930, ostensibly to teach kids good manners while encouraging a love of Disney films and products. The informal kid’s clubs held meetings in local movie theaters, where leaders emphasized the importance of attending Sunday school, respecting parents, developing good hygiene, and helping others. By 1932, Mickey Mouse Clubs boasted more than a million members worldwide.
From the early '30s onward, familiar characters like Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Peg Leg Pete, Donald Duck, Pluto, and Goofy were made into dolls, puppets, and figurines; painted onto lunchboxes, handkerchiefs, and backpacks; and turned into every kind of children’s toy imaginable.
As for Mickey and Minnie, they were first produced as cloth dolls in 1930 by a seamstress named Charlotte Clark, whose 16-year-old cousin (and future Looney Tunes animator), Bob Clampett, drew the initial design. In Clampett's version of Disney's most recognizable animated icon, Mickey was depicted as a wily, Depression-era kid in short-pants, sometimes called the “pie-eyed” Mickey because his oval eyes looked as though they were missing a single wedge. But Walt liked the look and quality of the dolls so much, he rented a house for Clark and her team, which was dubbed the Mouse House.
With Disney's success came waves of knockoff merchandise across the globe. In an effort to control their brand, Walt and Roy established an arm of their business devoted to licensing and merchandising. Their first contract was in 1930 with the George Borgfeldt company, which primarily imported bisque figurines. The appeal of Disney products was so broad that licensing deals could make or break smaller businesses: In the mid-1930s, the Lionel Toy Company was saved from bankruptcy by its Mickey and Minnie themed handcar sets.
When Kay Kamen joined as the head of character merchandising in 1932, his first project was to spearhead a Mickey Mouse promotional campaign, which included everything from pinbacks and flip books to billboard-sized advertisements. In 1933, Disney signed the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Company to make Mickey Mouse watches fixtures on wrists around the world. Other major alliances soon followed, including campaigns for Globetrotter Bread and the National Dairy Company...
Kamen also pushed to improve the quality of products bearing the Disney stamp, inciting bidding wars between top-of-the-line manufacturers of toys, games, apparel, and other related industries. Because of Kamen’s success, brands like Ohio Art, Louis Marx, Crown Toy and Novelty, Knickerbocker, Ideal, Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Fisher Price, and Whitman Publishing all wanted in on the Disney game.
At the end of the 1930s, Disney began modernizing its familiar characters with contemporary outfits and softening their physical features to achieve a more human silhouette. The market for Disneyana really went wild after the 1937 release of Disney’s first full-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with the princess and her little friends appearing on every imaginable household product.
The trend continued in the 1940s as Disney released several successful films, including “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi,” “Saludos Amigos,” and “Fantasia.” Disney characters now adorned radios, banks, tea sets, cookie jars, jigsaw puzzles, ice skates, records, clocks, toothbrushes, musical instruments, lamps, and even ashtrays.
As World War II got underway, the sailor-suited Donald Duck became Disney’s most visible character since his fiery temper made him a perfect fit for anti-Axis propaganda and patriotic wartime advertising. But with the premiere of the Mickey Mouse Club television show in 1955, Mickey re-entered the spotlight as his visage was stamped onto plastic china sets, coloring books, and popular “Mousegetars.”
In July of 1955, the Disneyland amusement park opened in Anaheim, California, with its five themed lands—Main Street USA, Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland—providing a plethora of marketable material and miles of souvenir shops selling every imaginable knickknack, including pins.
A new wave of interest in Disney memorabilia peaked during the 1960s, surprisingly driven by the hippie counterculture. As a reaction against mid-century American conservatism, a new generation adopted Mickey as a symbol of their working-class ethos, since the likeable trickster was disdained by the affluent. Beginning with the iconic Mickey Mouse watch, sales of Disneyana (new and vintage) skyrocketed in the late 1960s. Disney’s promotional empire expanded again with the opening of Disney World in 1971, followed by the shops at Walt Disney World Village in 1975. Although the company continued to grow following the death of Walt Disney in 1966, and his brother Roy in 1971, many collectors consider the 1930s to 1960s to be the golden years of Disney memorabilia.