One of the most memorable and successful expositions, The Chicago World’s Fair, opened just over 80 years ago on May 27, 1933. Called “A Century of Progress”, the fair celebrated the latest in design, technology and entertainment. It featured a controversial landing of the Graf Zeppelin from Germany, dream cars from Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard and Pierce-Arrow, the first-ever modernist home designs, the first streamlined trains – which forever changed all modern design - and the first Major League All-Star baseball game.
Oddly enough, what is most noted today is that the World’s Fair was the venue for the introduction of the Mickey Mouse watch. Although those other events were important, that silly watch does actually rank up there with them.
We say it’s silly because today the term “Mickey Mouse” is often used to denigrate something as trivial, inferior, or unprofessional. He’s just a cartoon character, and a kind of fluffy one at that, not a superhero. But that was not the case in 1933 and in the annals of marketing and collecting; the Mickey Mouse watch is anything but silly.
The first watches were produced by the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Company of Waterbury, CT. By all reports the company was struggling at the time and close to bankruptcy as Americans cut back on non-essential items during the Great Depression. The initial price was $3.25, equivalent to just about $56 in today’s terms, and while it was well-received, sales were slow at the Chicago Exposition. When they reduced the price to $2.95 sales skyrocketed, giving us an early lesson in marketing; price point is everything, $2.95 appears much cheaper than $$3.25.
We all know that Walt Disney built the largest media company on the planet from the success of his Mickey Mouse character. Mickey was introduced to the world in a short animated film, Steamboat Willie, in 1928. He was a replacement for an earlier character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which Disney abandoned when he discovered he had failed to secure the rights to his own creation. That was a hard lesson and Disney vowed to never let it happen again.
Mickey was an immediate hit. This was just at the start of the Great Depression, people needed a fun diversion, Mickey filled the bill and Disney responded by producing many short films (about 8 minutes long) featuring Mickey and his friends.
They were an unqualified success all over the world but short animated films were expensive to make and didn’t generate a lot of money. Uncle Walt had big ambitions, he wanted to make full length feature films but he needed much more income to finance the dream.
In 1932 Walt and his brother Roy met Kay Kamen who owned a successful advertising, public relations and promotions company in Kansas City, Missouri. Kamen impressed them and soon afterward his company was contracted to license and market Mickey Mouse products, an unusual move at the time. The Disneys couldn’t have chosen a better person for the job.
It was Kamen who came up with the Mickey Mouse Watch. It wasn’t his first marketing deal for Disney but it was by far his most lucrative. They were first offered for $3.25 each but didn't sell well however Ingersoll sold 11,000 watches at Macy’s in New York the first day of its release at the new price of $2.95.
Ingersoll flourished because of the Disney deal and continued to make Mickey Mouse watches up until the mid 1970s. They had become such a tradition that the watches were still branded as Ingersoll long after the company changed its name, first to U.S. Time, then to Timex.
Timex isn’t the only giant corporation that owes its life to Kamen and Mickey Mouse. Lionel Trains, a name familiar to many collectors, had gone into receivership in 1933 but was rescued when they signed a deal to produce a Mickey Mouse wind up hand car. Priced at just under $1, Lionel sold about 20,000 of them in the first four months. At 50 cents profit per unit it didn’t generate a lot of income, but its success got them funding to keep going. Lionel train collectors are very thankful for that.
Kamen was a stickler for quality and tightly controlled the merchandise but he was also very aggressive. He issued a lot of licenses and made sure Disney characters, especially Mickey, were prominently displayed everywhere. Disney and Kamen split the profits 50-50 and soon Disney had enough money to produce his first full length feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released in 1938.
With Kamen’s marketing machine in full swing, Snow White proved once and for all that film merchandising is just as important, if not more important than the film itself for generating attention and profit. This is all too common knowledge now but it was the Mickey Mouse watch that led the way.
The golden age of Disney merchandising ended suddenly when Kay Kamen and his wife were killed in a plane crash in 1949. For Disney collectors, that makes pre-1950 merchandise especially desirable but of course, merchandising continues to be perhaps the most important part of the Disney empire. The current craze of Disney pin collecting is a perfect example.
Other companies, including Lorus, Seiko and even Rolex continued to make Mickey Mouse watches and they are still popular with consumers and collectors today. That’s largely because some time in the 1960s the popular press started to report that vintage Mickey Mouse watches were selling for hundreds of dollars to collectors. This was a revelation for many people who realized for the first time that antique collecting wasn’t just about fine art or handmade furniture. Something that was mass-produced and trivial can also have great value and be important to us culturally.
So happy 80th birthday Mickey Mouse watch, it’s obvious you are going to keep ticking for a long time yet.