Christmas King of Toyland: Mickey Mouse

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Whatever happened to Thanksgiving? This year I saw Christmas displays up before Halloween! The first week of November I was visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios with my friend and fellow Disney historian Werner Weiss (who for over 20 years has been the web master for the well respected Yesterland site) and it was arrayed with Christmas decorations.

Gertie the Dinosaur was wearing her red Santa hat and a red bulb Christmas ornament was dangling from her mouth and it was only November 5.

On November 27, 1924, the first Macy's Christmas Parade (as it was originally called) stepped into the streets of New York for an audience of more than a quarter-million people!

Conceived by Macy's employees (many of whom were first-generation immigrants who wanted to celebrate the American holiday with a similar traditional festival popular in their homelands), the parade ended with Santa Claus unveiling Macy's Christmas windows on 34th Street that attracted children and their parents to Macy's newly expanded toy department.

While today, the parade is known as Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, because that is the day it takes place, it was still considered the official opening of the Christmas sales season.

MIckey Mouse as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in the 1930s. He wouldn't appear again until the 1970s.

In 1934, Tony Sarg, who was in charge of the store's display windows and the balloon figures in the parade, teamed with Walt Disney to produce the first Disney balloons to appear in the Macy's Parade.

The advertisement for the 1934 parade proclaimed:

"See Gigantic Balloons designed by none other than Walt Disney creator of Mickey Mouse Himself. Mammoth Mickey Mouse a Colossus 40 feet high!!!! Pluto the Pup!! The Happy howling canine. Horace Horsecollar filled with fun and helium. 12 ½ feet high. The Big Bad Wolf!!! Held down by thirty marchers!!!!! See the Big Bad Wolf 34 feet high. See the Pig 31 feet high!!!"

That pig balloon was a very bad version of the Fifer pig from the popular cartoon Three Little Pigs (1933). The press laughed at the portly pig's difficulty at getting under the elevated train line at 65th Street and again awkwardly maneuvering at 53rd Street. Canvas was quickly placed on the street to protect it from the rough pavement. He was slowly glided under the structures on his back to successfully rise again and finish his parade trek. Following the pig was the Big Bad Wolf with a white star (the emblem of Macy's) on its chest.

Why was Horace Horsecollar only 12 1/2 feet high? Because a team of six Horaces pulled Santa's sleigh!

The star balloon debuting in 1935 was Donald Duck. Returning was Mickey, Horace, the Big Bad Wolf and Pluto. Mickey was in a "Superman-style" pose with his hands on his hips and elbows out in the air, while more than a dozen balloon handlers, who were dressed in black sweaters, baggy shorts, black tights and Mickey Mouse masks, held on to ropes and guided the helium-filled mouse down the street. Mickey's face had been painted in Akron, but the rest of his body was painted in a huge warehouse in New York.

For two consecutive years, Whitman Publishing Company (responsible for producing Big Little Books featuring the Disney characters) printed two special Mickey Mouse premiums for Macy's Department Stores. Macy's Santa handed out copies of the soft cover Mickey Mouse and Minnie at Macy's to children during the 1934 Christmas season. To theme in with Thanksgiving, the book told the story of the Pilgrims.

The following Christmas season, in 1935, saw Macy's Santa handing out another exclusive soft cover book, Mickey Mouse and Minnie March to Macy's. The book told of the couple's trip to New York and how they inspired the giant balloons of themselves in the famous seasonal parade.

Both of these special Big Little Books (3 7/16" x 3 9/16" and 144 pages long) featured one page of text while the facing page had a black and white drawing. Kay Kamen, the genius behind Disney marketing beginning in 1932, was the instigator behind these unique promotional books that encouraged parents to visit Macy's so their children could have this special treat.

After 1939, Mickey Mouse as a balloon disappeared from the parade for several decades, until 1970, when an updated Mickey appeared just in time to help promote the upcoming opening of Walt Disney World.

Disney and Christmas seem to share many of the same core values: magic, family, joy, caring, celebrating and more.

Christmas might seem incomplete without some element of Disney whether it is a cartoon, a toy, a book, or a visit to a theme park. Certainly some of my most memorable Christmases are related to a special Disney gift and even this year I have written Santa hoping for some books to be stuffed into my stocking.

I am old enough to remember that starting after Thanksgiving, the local department stores like Sears (and, boy, did I love going through the Sears Wish Book toy section page by page to make my Christmas list) would set up a separate toy section, usually with a chance to meet Santa himself.

These areas were usually identified as the North Pole or some annex of that location. However, in the 1930s at the peak of Mickey Mouse's popularity, they were called Toyland.

The fact that Mickey Mouse and Disney is so closely associated with Christmas is that Kamen aggressively promoted the pairing.

In 1934 Kamen boasted that the toy departments of 35 leading retailers featured Disney themes. That number grew to 50 by the year 1935.

In 1935, Disney merchandise produced over $35 million for the studio and royalty income from merchandise far exceeded revenue from film rentals.

Eventually, Mickey appeared in every major department store in the United States, and, during the Great Depression years, he was unofficially dubbed "King of Toyland,"

"And now comes Christmas, when merchandise as Christmas gifts can be sold in large quantities. What would be more acceptable than a 'Mickey Mouse' gift?" wrote Kamen in the news bulletin to all Disney licensees, October 17, 1932.

Mickey was featured on giveaway books, buttons, masks and other items Kamen provided for Santas in various department stores to pass along to their young visitors.

One such item from the 1930s was a gift box for boys that featured a Mickey Mouse pencil and eraser, a small pin-backed button, a cheap watch fob with Mickey on the end and a black bow tie that, while it did not feature Mickey on it, still referenced his major color and could still be worn at church services or a holiday dinner party.

One of the giveaway premiums listed in Kamen's 1935 Christmas manual was The Magic Movie Palette, which was a small, four-page book that featured two cut-out windows and a moveable dial, which, when turned showed a series of images of either Mickey ice-skating or Minnie walking along a snowy path.

As I mentioned, during the holiday season, many department stores designated their toy section as "Toyland" or "Toy Town," It was the location where they set up a North Pole area with Santa sitting on a chair throne to listen to a long line of eager children anxious to sit on his lap and share what they wanted for Christmas.

Kamen worked with the largest store retailers around the United States at Christmas time to guarantee that they featured a Disney theme for their Toyland areas during the holiday season. He produced a 25-foot by 18-inch banner with a jolly Santa Claus hugging a smiling Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck with Clarabelle Cow and Pluto standing behind them. They were all saying "Welcome to Toytown!" Kamen made sure there were plenty of store signs promoting Disney products with images of Mickey and Santa together and enlisted the expertise of Old King Cole, an Ohio-based company that specialized in display items, to transform toy departments into Disney Christmas wonderlands.

Old King Cole Papier Mache Company, in Canton Ohio decorated America's stores and store windows by the thousands, throughout the first half of the 20th Century. While they supplied a variety of different decorations and figures from RCA's Nipper the Dog to Mr. Peanut, they were also licensed to make Disney displays from 1932 to 1942. The company produced stunning three-dimensional Disney display figures constructed of papier-mâché. Some of the company's colorful displays measured 6-by-9 feet, and many had moving parts.

First, in 1932, they manufactured an iconic figure of Mickey (followed shortly by Minnie) with his arm outstretched high in his famous early strutting pose of the time. The figure was used in many stores to promote Mickey Mouse merchandise for sale and often in theaters, as well, to publicize a Mickey cartoon release. They sold for $4 each and were so sturdy that a few still survive today.

For Christmas displays, Old King Cole made designs with not just of Mickey and Minnie, but Donald Duck, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow. Often these figures were available in two versions: the standard pose and also the standard pose that was animated by having the head nod up and down or the figure bend back and forth at the waist.

In 1938, one of the more elaborate exhibits appeared in a Pennsylvania store promoting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For $0.25, children could walk through nine window displays showcasing scenes from the film "…and receive a surprise package from Snow White in person." That gift was probably the 14-page Dopey's Christmas Tree, a booklet that featured the story of Dopey and his visit with "Little Bob and Betty" on Christmas Eve.

The green and red front cover had a picture of the smiling dwarf Dopey and stated: "A Merry Christmas to All Our Little Friends" and a place for the department store to imprint its name. All seven dwarfs appeared on the back cover.

Dopey and his two new children friends went to the Dwarfs' cottage where they ate cake made and served by Snow White along with candies, soda and more that didn't make them sick no matter how much they ate, played with toys, and watched an outdoor circus performed by forest animals. Towards the end, they stop at the Seven Dwarfs' Toy Shop. Betty remarked, "Look what the sign says. The Seven Dwarfs must have quit mining for precious stones, I suppose." Dopey smiled and nodded 'yes' and "his eyes twinkled".

They run into the dwarfs working away and Doc says: "Merry Christmas, Betty. How do you like our new occupation? Next time you see toys in your favorite store you will know where they came from, eh! And you will remember the Seven Dwarfs who think of you all year long while making these beautiful toys."

It was meant not just as a storybook but as a coloring book. "Take your color box and paint them yourself" declared the book and the drawings inside featured plenty of wide open spaces waiting to be filled with color. The book's last page read: "But do you think Bob and Betty had been dreaming? Yes, but the lovely part was their dream must have come true, for all the toys they had seen…were right in the toy department of their favorite store."

A similar exclusive booklet, Pinocchio's Christmas Party, was issued in 1939. It was illustrated with Disney maquettes from the film made by Disney's own Model Department. The book was 16-pages long and about 7 ½ to 10 ½ inches.

The cover featured a maquette of Stromboli the evil puppeteer holding a drawn bird cage with Pinocchio inside. In the lower left corner was a drawing of Gepetto, Honest John, Gideon and the Coachman in front of a decorated Christmas tree with wrapped presents at their feet. The cover stated: "This Story of Pinocchio is a Present from Santa Claus at (name of department store) Come and visit (department store's name) TOYLAND as often as you can! Because old Santa has collected everything you could want and hope to have in this big merry spot. Come and bring your friends!" The last paragraph in this book read, "And here's the nicest part…all of the toys the Blue Fairy gave Pinocchio you can see for yourself in the toy department right in our store." The back cover had a photo of a Pinocchio maquette with one hand pointing upwards.

In 1935, Kamen arranged for the publication of a softcover Big Little Book that was 148 pages in length with black and white illustrations titled Mickey Mouse and the Magic Carpet.

It told the adventures of Mickey and his friends as they climbed aboard "…an ancient carpet from out of the east, from the land of the Arabian nights" that took Mickey and his friends across North America to destinations like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.

As historian David Lesjak discovered, the book was connected with an interactive ride that retailers could purchase directly from Kamen.

The 1935 merchandising manual indicated:

"In groups as large as 50, [children] are seated on a carpet 30 feet long by 6 feet wide…on goes a cloud machine…a wind machine…and a whirring motor sound to simulate an airplane. On a translucent screen is flashed…motion pictures depicting a trip over mountains, snow, etc. The carpet…starts an undulating motion…pronounced enough to give the effect of a ride through the air."

At the conclusion of the ride, children visited Santa and received a copy of the book only available at that store.

With the extraordinary success of the 1934 wind-up Mickey and Minnie handcar (so many were ordered that the company fell 100,000 items short), Lionel produced for the 1935 Christmas season a Santa Car that featured a painted wood composition Santa pumping away on a red hand car with a Christmas tree on the opposite side of him. In the sack he carried on his back was a tiny Mickey Mouse doll peeking out from the top. It came with a 72-inch loop of track and sold for $1 and is one of the most difficult early Mickey collectibles to locate. For families during the Depression who could not afford an entire electric train set, these wind-up handcars with their own set of tracks were a wonderful option to make a child happy on Christmas morning.

In the 1930s, Dennison manufactured a variety of holiday gift wraps, cards stickers and seals. Wrapping paper had a variety of images using the colors red, green and black including Mickey and Minnie trying to decorate their Christmas tree as Pluto runs around it .

Another image showed Mickey and Minnie at 9 p.m. sitting beside a roaring fire in the chimney where their stockings had been hung with care awaiting Santa's arrival.

Interestingly, one of the images on the wrapping paper and on a gift tag had Mickey and Minnie sleeping together Christmas Eve…but in separate beds, of course!

Hall Brothers (later known as Hallmark) produced dozens of Christmas cards with Mickey and his friends and appropriate holiday greetings. They also sold tags for Christmas presents with Mickey and his friends. Joyce "J.C." Hall, founder of Hall Brothers, Inc grew up about a mile from Walt Disney in Kansas City, Missouri, although they never knew each other at the time.

In 1931, Roy O. Disney visited Hall and they devised a licensing agreement for Hall's company to publish greeting cards featuring Disney characters. It was one of the first licensing agreements for both companies. By February 1932, in time for Valentine's Day, there were cards of Mickey and Minnie celebrating the holiday. Shortly afterward, there were Christmas cards.

"Mickey says 'Hello, There' and comes to tell you, too, 'Here's hoping dear Old Santa is mighty nice to YOU!'"

Another card had Minnie, Donald (who had apparently lost a snowball fight badly against Minnie) and Goofy who was building a snowman with Mickey's head and the greeting: "Minnie and Donald and Goofy, too—help bring this great big wish to you! Merry Christmas."

These classic Hallmark Disney cards and many others like them over the 1930s and 1940s are currently under good care at the Hallmark Archives collection.

The NOMA Electric Corporation manufactured sets of Disney-themed Christmas lights from 1933 until 1938, after which they also produced replacement bell shades for the sets featuring Disney characters. There were four different sets produced: Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies available in the U.S. and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio sets available in Canada.

Each set had a strand of eight 15-volt Mazda lights and eight bell-shaped pastel-colored shade covers with decals on them of Disney characters engaged in various holiday activities. Those actions included Minnie and Donald singing carols while Mickey played his violin and Morty and Ferdy excited by all the wrapped presents under a Christmas tree.

Replacement bakelite shades were sold in their own boxes well into the 1940s for these sets, although the light sets themselves were discontinued. NOMA Disney lights are now sought after by collectors, and can be hard to find boxed and in good working condition and may command premium prices.

A magazine advertisement from 1935 proclaimed, "Dress your Christmas Tree with Mickey Mouse Lights by NOMA. Children will shriek with delight – older folks will chuckle at this newest idea in Christmas tree lights. Mickey Mouse and all his gang are shown in action scenes, reproduced in brilliant colors. Offered exclusively by NOMA by special permission of Walt Disney. $1.75."

The Disney Company issued a single, corporate design Christmas card every year from 1931 to 1989 until it got so large that each business unit began producing their own cards. At first the cards featured Mickey and his gang, but then were later used to promote the latest animated feature film release.

In the 1930s a Christmas gift for a child might include a Mickey Mouse snowsuit from Mayfair Togs Inc. of New York or Mickey Mouse mittens, Mickey Mouse rubber boots, a Mickey Mouse sweater or even a Mickey Mouse scarf.

Mickey continued to be a Christmas superstar for decades but the 1930s were the beginning of that long reign when he was truly the King of Toyland during the holiday season. If you would like to read more stories about Disney and Christmas, you might want to consider asking Santa Claus for a copy of my book Vault of Walt Volume 7: The Christmas Edition that is filled with nothing but Disney Christmas related tales from the theme parks, films and more.