Collecting Harry Potter: A Wizarding World of Merchandise

J. K. Rowling is the only major fantasy English-language fantasy writer to have completely saturated the market with merchandise described in her books: her imagination is naturally  commodifying. Diana Wynne Jones wrote more books revolving around magical powers, but the plots and characters are not contained in one world. There are seven volumes by Ursula K. Le Guin about the great archipelago of Earthsea, where wizards and ordinary people live frugally without the assistance of technology or pleasures of many creature comforts.  Things are central to the imaginative realm of Rowling in a way they never were in those of Wynne Jones and Le Guin.  Say “Harry Potter” and chances are a product she dreamed up as likely to pop into your head; there is no comparable reaction when hearing “Chrestomanci” or “Sparrowhawk.”

Only those immersed in the Harry Potter series as youngsters will put on their bucket list a visit to Platform 9 ¾, the flagship of official licensed Harry Potter shops in King’s Cross Station.  Somewhere among the wizarding world collectibles for Muggles may be found for that petite madeleine—or rather Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans—that will keep the memories ever green of reading the books, listening to the audio-recordings, and watching the films.  A jar of Bobotuber pus cannot be had there for love or money, but there is more than enough swag to cram full an expandable bag.   A set of Horcruxes?  An LGBT pride tee shirt?    A Divination tea set?  A Gringotts bank?  A Final Challenge chess set?  What will you have?It’s even possible to imagine Rowling’s characters visiting Platform 9 ¾ as a  shadowy simulacrum of Diagon Alley.  Draco would stalk down the aisles looking for merch from the dark side— the Death Eaters’ masks or the movie prop replica of his wand authenticated by Warner Brothers in an Ollivander’s box plus a Slytherin wand stand—that might stir his pure blood and uncurl his lip very slightly.

Ron would deny the existence of knock-offs of his mother’s infamous Christmas sweaters.  Being chronically short of pocket money, he would have to be contented with picking up some cheap Quidditch memorabilia or trying to complete his set of chocolate frog wizard cards.There isn’t anything quirky enough in the shop to catch Luna’s eye. If witches used mobile phones, she could search Etsy for unique items like customized cake decorations, a polymer clay statue of Dobby and the sock that liberated him, or a full-scale model of Harry’s cupboard while waiting for her friends to finish browsing. The attempts to copy her personal style, on the other hand, she might not take as a compliment, even if the prices were reasonable.What about Hermione?  It’s hard to imagine her wearing a charm bracelet with miniatures of the winged key or the Tri-wizard Tournament cup. But the best witch of her generation can’t resist a good reference book, so she might just not be able to resist a copy of the Unofficial Harry Potter Character Compendium compiled by Mugglenet bound in “premium leather accented in true 22K gold” from Easton Press for $147.00 (payment in  three convenient installments is also an option). And her preference for books is, surprisingly enough, the soundest in terms of investment value.  The books that started the tsunami of authorized merchandise, have held their value relative to the tchotchkes: thousands of dollars separate the priciest lots of merch on EBay from the seven titles in the series.   Buying a first edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on Ebay would be foolhardy, given the very brief descriptions posted there, but armed with Phillip W. Errington’s  updated edition of  J. K. Rowling:  A Bibliography (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), I can examine any copy at hand and be confident of identifying one of the several million copies of the first printing of the American edition.   In fact, there’s one in my basement, but it’s been handled too much to realize full market value.  Pity.

Errington succeeds in bestowing upon Rowling’s body of writing literary legitimacy, but fails to give any indication of the existence of the parallel collecting universe she has authorized to extend the wizarding world’s reach far beyond the printed page.   Legions of devout fans haunt Ebay for Harry Potter memorabilia because it’s affordable.  It can be bought in lots sold by weight or acquired painstakingly item by item.  For a  Hagrid completist, it would be necessary to track down all forms of Fang, Fluffy, Norbert, Buckbeak, Blast-ended skrewts, Aragog, etc.  Having gone that far down the path to the Forbidden Forest, the passionate collector would then be obligated to add all the different versions  of his hut (that’s a lot of Legos) and the peculiar objects inspired by the birthday cake he baked for Harry….  All this activity raises the dementors of storage versus display–and either option eats up space and tests the forbearance of loved ones.  It has even wider ramifications.  Best-selling books may be the heart and soul of any campaign to exploit their commercial potential as a beloved cultural property, but overlooking all the merch (however sane a decision it may be on the bibliographer’s part) fails to come to terms with the cataclysmic changes marketing and branding have wrought in the literary landscape of late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.  To understand the impact of Rowling’s imagination, it is important to take into account her fans’ powerful desire to acquire solid, displayable, wearable tokens of the wizarding world.

Read the two articles below for different takes on collecting Harry Potter:

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]: Remember that “all children love buttons!”


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


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


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


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