Merry Christmas, Mickey Mouse! A 1934 Disney Merchandise Promotional Book

Feeling the seasonal pangs of commercialism?   Wondering if you have the strength to shop local instead of on-line?   Just remember that the good old days weren’t always what they are cracked up to be.  Even in the Depression, Uncle Walt was dreaming of product placement, not sugarplums.   Enjoy this look at a masterpiece of holiday merchandizing that was first posted several years ago.

Front board of in process item

Front board of Cotsen in process item 7210213

Cotsen is lucky enough to have acquired a rare Christmas promotion book from 1934 (New York: Kay Kamen Incorporated, 1934). The book, spiral-bound with sheets tipped on card stock meant for tearing out, was designed by Kay Kamen Incorporated and distributed to department stores around the country. The promotional book outlines specific Mickey- and Disney-themed product displays, meticulously describes events and product placement, and offers a catalog of promotional Disney material.

Page [1], foreward

Page [1]: foreword

The foreword pictured above, outlines what the book seeks to capitalize on: “Bearing in mind the knowledge of the Public’s Mickey Mouse consciousness and with a combination of ideas from the leading Publicity and Display Executives of America, we present this Store-wide Mickey Mouse Christmas Promotion”.

The early 1930’s saw an explosion of popularity and “Mickey Mouse consciousness” for Walt Disney’s character. First appearing to a general public with the release of Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928, Mickey Mouse would become one of the most recognizable cartoon characters ever in just a few short years. Early Mickey cartoons, directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, impressed audiences with innovative use of sound for comedic effect by synchronizing the actions of the character with the music and audio (talkies had just begun to gain commercial viability and popular appeal).

But it was Mickey’s appearance in merchandise and Disney’s ability to proliferate this image that would make the white-gloved mouse a household name. And it was especially designed department store promotions, like the one pictured here, that allowed the Disney image to become ubiquitously American. But without Kay Kamen, Disney merchandise might never have had the ballooning success it enjoyed in the 30s and beyond.

In the words of Charles Solomon, an historian of animation:

In 1932, Herman “Kay” Kamen, a former hat salesman who had built a successful advertising business in Kansas City, called Disney about developing character merchandise. Walt and Roy had been unhappy with the quality of some of the earlier merchandise and were interested in Kamen’s offer. He came to Los Angeles, a deal was struck, and the number of products bearing Mickey’s likeness expanded rapidly. Mickey appeared on everything from a Cartier diamond bracelet ($1,250.) to tin toys that sold for less than $1. In 1933 alone, 900,000 Mickey Mouse watches and clocks were sold, along with ten million Mickey Mouse ice cream cones. By 1934, Disney was earning more than $600,000 a year in profits from films and merchandise.1

This Christmas Promotion 1934 catalog remains a rare artifact of the aggressive and ingenious promotional advertising that Kay Kamen used to fuel the then fledgling Disney name into the omnipresent empire that we all know today. And as the book shows, Disney cornered the toy and merchandise market by inundating 1930’s consumers with the Disneyana atmosphere:

Pages [2-3] offer meticulous plans for the town parade that should correspond to the opening of the toy department in your town. Descriptions of the individual floats are provided and promotional products are available to advertise by your store!

Page [6]: The Mickey Mouse Post Office allowed department stores an easy way of obtaining mailing addresses, contact with parents, and “would probably make this link in your Promotional Campaign one of merit and profit.”

page[7]

Page [7]: Remember that “all children love buttons!”

page[12]

Page 12: an example of a promotional parade poster that was supposed to point consumers to the right place.

page[18]

Page [18]: One of several promotional panels available for store decoration.

Page [25]: Mickey Mouse, The Goof, and Horace Horsecollar Christmas-themed mail decorations.

Spread [30-31]: life-sized Minnie and Mickey dolls were also available, as well as life-sized hollow laminate heads.

page[32]

Page [32]: A tipped-in Mickey mask designed as a promotional hand-out.

page[38]

Page [38]: More examples of give-aways, including an image of the buttons mentioned on page [7] above.

Pages [40-41]: The left page lists approved companies for ordering supplies like Micky Mouse stationary, drapery material, and balloons. The right page is the first page of a priced Kay Kamen Inc. catalog.

page[44]foldout

Page [44]: fold-out “blue prints” for the Mickey Mouse House to be constructed in a department store toy department.

page[45]copyright

Page [45]: The copyright notice at the back of the book, probably dutifully reinforced with a blue pencil by a store manager.

Disneyana promotional material, toys, merchandise, and ephemera are adored by collectors. The unique opportunity this book affords us is a look into the past with respect to the use and distribution of some of these products and their original costs. cost. This Christmas Promotion 1934 catalog allows us a unique look at the tools and machinations of a nascent merchandise giant and how it shapes children’s (and adults’) culture, and spaces. Advertising, after all, is what Christmas and childhood is really all about…

Happy holidays, everyone!


  1. The Golden Age of Mickey Mouse, by Charles Solomon

100 Best Children’s Books: A Roundup

Everyone must have prizes!

Spinning out a history through one hundred objects is probably here to stay for a while longer.  One hundred things sounds like a cornucopia of examples, but the largely arbitrary number sprawls and contracts during the maddening process of finalizing list.  What looks good at the end of one session, stirs up arguments at the next one. Passions run so high that an impartial and judicious selection seems an impossible dream. In the end the principles for selection have to be spelled out succinctly even though they will please almost no one, because everyone will protest gleefully at the omission of a favorite and inclusion of the unthinkable.

Children’s books have been the subject of three such surveys in the last four years.  In 2015 there was 100 Great Children’s Picture Books by Martin Salusbury, graphic designer and professor of illustration at Anglia-Ruskin University.  Roderick Cave, a publishing historian and teacher of rare book librarianship, collaborated with his daughter Sarah Ayad on A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books (2017).  Entering the lists last month was The 100 Best Children’s Books by Brian Alderson, the ultimate jack of all trades who for decades has been engaged with the creation, publication, and interpretation of children’s books. 

Martin Salusbury starts with Peter Newell’s The Slant Book (1910) and finishes with Katherina Manolessou’s Zoom Zoom Zoom (2014), which both happen to be about wayward babies–one in a runaway buggy, the other a little monkey who can’t get to sleep.  As a coda to the chronological list of his one hundred books, he offers a glimpse of what the future may bring. There’s a “Further Reading” section comprising books about reading, visual communication and storytelling, the major journals in the field, and a heap of websites, so it’s not a bad place to start learning more about modern children’s book illustration.

Salusbury’s goal is to provide the picture book’s admirers with “a visual feast” of titles distinguished by good art and design.  The “wow factor” is the major criteria for selection, by which he means a colorful, bold modernist aesthetic that’s more abstract that representational.  He’s eminently qualified for the job, having for years haunted the major global book fairs, served on juries for international awards, and taught aspiring illustrators, at least one of made the cut here.  Many of the people whose work is praised here also had careers in advertising, set design, and fashion, a welcome reminder that illustrators’ artistic practices aren’t necessarily confined to one medium or form.  Of British illustrators, Salusbury is partial to Edward Ardizzone and the best pupils of Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Enid Marx, and Betty Swanick, famous for her London Transport Posters.  While the focus is the Anglo-American tradition, he also acknowledge the excellence of French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Swiss illustrators (the Germans are largely passed by without comment).  Whether or not you share Salusbury’s taste, looking at the well-chosen pictures and reading the genial commentary is entertaining and informative (even if the facts aren’t always right), The conception of Cave and Ayad’s  History of Children’s Books  is also was conceived to accommodate the reader who’s inclined to skip around instead of reading straight through. The curious and confusing omission of a master list of the one hundred titles is quite noticeable because the book includes non-book objects, like a Sumerian silver lyre in the shape of a ship, ephemera like a agent-recruiting advertisement for Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and a papier-mâché and wood logo model for Dean’s Rag Books, but there is no way to know if they are part of the count.

Instead the material is organized topically in chapters with alluring titles such as “Innocence, Experience, and Old-Fashioned Nonsense,” “Fairies and Frighteners: Tempters, Tearaways and Cautionary Tales,” “Advanced Women, Looking Backwards, or “Growing Up Fast: Comics, TV and New Media.”  While the literary works like fairy tales, adventure stories, and animal tales are treated in logical chapters, the rationale for distributing the educational works across the volume. seems more arbitrary. The English-language teaching materials produced in the Empire’s far-flung colonies would have made more of an impact if shown together instead of dispersed, such as Chinua Achebe’s “How the Leopard Got His Claws” (1972), part of an ambitious plan to produce books for Nigerian school children aborted by the Biafran war, or Rabindrinath Tagore’s Bengali primer Sahaj Path (1930).  Works where illustration was critical to the educational scheme, like Jane Johnson’s manuscript nursery library or Karion Istomin’s 1694 illustrated Russian-language primer or Bukvar  seem orphaned in their own sections unrelated to similar materials elsewhere in the volume.

Some chapters are grab bags of ideas whose connection with the designated books may not be especially clear or logical. A reader may be confused by Chapter I, “First Steps: Oral Traditions and Pre-literacy,” which jumps from child-rearing gurus Sir Truby King, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Lady Margaret Mount Cashell, then to authors determined to raise good readers like Mrs. Trimmer, Charlotte Yonge, and Dorothy Butler, next skips to 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey, and concludes with a discussion of battledores, hornbooks, Steichen’s photographically illustrated First Picture Book.  Surprisingly little is said about the children’s illustrated–Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, also illustrated and mentioned in Chapter 3, Mrs Henry Cole’s The Mother’s Primer (1844), and an advertising poster for Dean’s Rag Books. Overall the volume feels less like a history than an exhibition that does not seek to make an argument about the subject and therefore oblige a conscientious viewer to start at the beginning and work systematically through the sequence of cases.  If most of the cases are given a good look, the viewer may take away a sense of the subject’s  many facets, without understanding much about how they are related.

Of the three best books, Alderson’s roams the widest over narrative fiction– fantasy, historical fiction, adventure yarns, family and school novels. The introduction lays out in typically uncompromising terms the project’s aesthetic.  His “team” of 100 is composed of  books that “will sound as well read aloud as they may be read on the printed page (or perhaps even better).” Twain’s Tom Sawyer, yes, but Jeffries’  Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882) is surely something of a stretch… He has not hesitated to include a book not considered an author’s “best” if another “which allows a discussable element of their style” or chosen a “first or early work from which the oeuvre as a whole has blossomed,” William Mayne’s A Swarm in May (1955) being a good example.  The short essays, a good number of which have an illustration from the book, are arranged in strict chronological order.  The essays are in two parts: a plot summary which also puts the book in literary and historical context to begin and a commentary to conclude, both well-larded with Aldersonian barbed quips.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with: “Lewis [i.e. C. S.] got the job done quicker with the White Witch and not so much argy bargy with death-defying wands.

This volume, which demands and repays attentive reading, may turn out to have the longest shelf life.  I was disappointed that the first nine essays about historically important children’s books published before Anderson’s Snow Queen (1846), do not quite measure up to the rest.  It may be true that few adults (much less children) since World War II  have  read  Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) or Maria Edgeworth’s Parent’s Assistant (1796).  There are certainly excellent reasons why these classics have been abandoned as no longer relevant to modern children’s lives.  Nevertheless they were the best of the best in their own times and Alderson doesn’t try that hard to explain why they might have been read with pleasure for decades.  The essay on Mme d’Aulnoy is a disquisition on the Kunstmaerchen that never gets down to describing any of her enchanting tales like “The White Cat,” “Graciosa and Percinet,” “The Good Little Mouse.”   They have not entirely lost their magic because in the early 1960s I read and reread in The Looking Glass Library edition of Lang’s Red Fairy Book.  I still have the grubby thing,

So how much common ground can there be between three such different lists?  The authors did not arrive independently at anything like a consensus about the canon of children’s books.  Any number of authors, illustrators, and series appeared in two of the three, including John Masefield, James Barrie, Kathleen Hale, Edward Ardizzone, Judith Kerr, Ladybird Books, and Puffin Picture Books but only Beatrix Potter made the cut in all three  It’s probably more interesting in the long run that Salusbury, Cave and Ayad, and Alderson each present a different view of what constitutes excellence in children’s books.  But in the final analysis, these lists of 100 best all dodge the difficult task of writing an interpretive history, something critics seem less and less willing to undertake in times where the interpretive politics of gender, race, and class can seem less like a lens and more like a muzzle.  .So vive la difference and revel in the arbitrary opinions of the passionate experts.