From Mickey Mouse radiator caps and light bulbs to candy tins and greeting cards, images of the ubiquitous mouse are difficult to escape. Yet few fans know that Mickey actually began as Oswald, and was more rabbit than mouse. When Walter Elias Disney moved from Kansas to Los Angeles in 1923, he soon began developing his first animated short films, whose hero was dubbed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald owed much of his appearance to blackface vaudeville characters of the day, complete with oversized shoes, white face, and a big goofy grin.
Aside from his rabbit ears and bushy tail, Oswald was almost identical to his future descendant Mickey. So after Disney discovered that he lacked the legal rights to Oswald, it didn't take much for him to work up a replacement. Making a few slight adjustments to the rabbit, Disney created Mortimer Mouse, whom Disney’s wife, Lillian, supposedly nicknamed Mickey.
Though Mickey’s first two animated shorts went unnoticed by the public, the release of "Steamboat Willie" in 1928 caused a sensation. Soon his cartoons were screening for audiences across the nation, and Disney initiated production of Mickey Mouse merchandise to capitalize on the success. To promote his character, the first Mickey Mouse Club was up and running in Ocean Park, California, the following year. A typical club not only emphasized merchandise and ticket sales, but also taught children lessons in responsibility, respecting parents, and even hygiene. Of course, this allowed Disney to market Mickey Mouse toothpaste and soap, too.
In 1930, Charlotte Clark created the first line of stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls, sold across the country at Bullock’s and May Co. department stores for the high price of $5. Steiff and Knickerbocker followed shortly after with their own plush Mickey toys. By 1932, Mickey Mouse Clubs had spread to England and Canada, with over one million members around the world. The growth of these clubs also brought a wave of Mickey ephemera, from pinback buttons to posters to membership cards.
At the same time, unlicensed Disney merchandise began to appear, most of which was manufactured in Western Europe. In response, Disney created a new licensing and merchandising arm of his original animation company, which he called Walt Disney Enterprises. Deals were quickly struck in America and abroad to allow toy companies the right to sell products bearing the likeness of Mickey Mouse. Suddenly the character was everywhere, in the form of bisque dolls, spinning tops, tea sets, handkerchiefs, wind-up toys, and more.
The George Borgfelt Company was the primary American producer of official Mickey Mouse paraphernalia, which was then sold under the Nifty Toy Company name. Today, some of the most desirable Mickey Mouse collectibles are Borgfeldt’s toys made from celluloid, a weak plastic that allowed for bright coloring and elaborate detail. However, Disney was not satisfied with the quality of Borgfelt’s goods or sales, pushing the company to increase revenue even during the difficult Depression years.
To this end, Disney hired Herman “Kay” Kamen to take over Disney’s licensing department. Kamen soon secured a partnership with Ingersoll-Waterbury Clocks to produce timepieces featuring Mickey Mouse. Ingersoll wristwatches with Mickey’s cartoon hands pointing out the hours were extremely popular among children, and one of these Mickey Mouse wristwatches even made it into the official time capsule of the New York World’s Fair in 1939...
By the time Disney’s first feature-length film, "Snow White," was released in 1938, Mickey’s visage had appeared on every possible product of the era, from National Dairy Ice Cream cones to Nabisco bread packaging. The cast of Disney characters steadily increased with the addition of new films, and by the end of World War II, Donald Duck had superseded Mickey as a merchandising favorite. Donald’s temperamental nature made it easy to use him in pro-war propaganda, unleashing his fury at enemy troops in a way that friendly Mickey could not.
During the 1950s, the release of Disney’s first live-action film, "Davy Crockett," and the opening of the Disneyland theme park continued to divert the company’s merchandising away from Mickey Mouse. Yet today, Mickey products from this era are highly sought after, particularly those associated with the Mickey Mouse Club television show, which,like the park, debuted in 1955. The personalized mouse-ear hats worn on every episode became the hottest selling item at Disneyland, though they were hated by the show's pompadour-coiffed male cast members. In addition to the array of paper Mickey Mouse Club memorabilia like magazines, paper dolls, and comics, a favorite of collectors is the Mousegetar, a wind-up guitar-shaped music box that plays the show's theme song.
Though he wouldn’t star in another film for the next 30 years, Mickey was still everywhere. Ingersoll’s original Mickey Mouse watch became hip again after the iconic piece was adopted by the counterculture movement in the 1960s. Hippies embraced Mickey as a rejection of highbrow culture, and helped to create another boom in Disney sales.
By the time NASA astronauts Walter Schirra and Gene Cernan wore their Mickey Mouse watches aboard Apollo spacecraft in the late 1960s, the character was more than just a symbol of childhood fun; Mickey had become an emblem of American achievement.
Meanwhile, artist Claes Oldenburg used Mickey’s familiar face to question these popular values. In 1967, Oldenburg finished the Mouse Museum, an installation whose form followed the contours of Mickey’s head and enclosed a space filled with found objects and pop-culture mementos. As Oldenburg explained, “the mouse is a state of mind.”
Disney’s latest attempt to overhaul and revitalize Mickey Mouse had him appearing in even more unlikely places, from an episode of "Sex and the City" to a PlayStation video game. In 2008, "Time" magazine reported that Mickey was still holding his own—internationally, his face was consistently more recognizable than that of Santa Claus.