In those early days, Disney did not have "the golden touch" that many associate with his name today. Looking back at some of the early history, Disney had his own share of cash flow issues. During the late 1920's, Mickey Mouse was starting to be a recognizable figure but Popeye The Sailor still led the national popularity polls. Licensing Disney characters was seen by Disney as a way to provide positive cash flow without significant expense. During this period there were a number of efforts undertaken to enter the licensing business and those historical aspects are outside of my scope of knowledge. But there were two products that caught my attention: the Ingersoll Mickey Mouse Wrist Watch and the Lionel Mickey Mouse Handcar.
The Mickey Mouse Watch was first made in mid-1933 by the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Company of Waterbury, CT. Ingersoll-Waterbury, was negatively impacted by people cutting back on non-essential items. As a side note, while the stock market crash was in 1929 the effects were not immediately felt by most. The programs on TV tend to show the headlines about the stock market crash and then images of the soup lines leading one to believe that the two were closely linked in time. In real life, it took a while for the effects to trickle down to the pocketbook on Main Street. The Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Company was feeling the squeeze and its financial condition was not good in the 1932-1933 framework. When first introduced, the Ingersoll-Waterbury Mickey Mouse Watch sold for $3.25. Frankly, $3.25 sounds cheap, but today the watch would cost roughly $52.00 -- certainly not inexpensive [See the Notes section below]. The response to the watch was somewhat favorable but improved when Ingersoll-Waterbury reduced the price to $2.95. A number of sources indicate that the Mickey Mouse watch was instrumental in keeping Ingersoll-Waterbury from going under. By the way, the Ingersoll-Waterbury Clock Company later became "Timex."
Ingersoll-Waterbury Mickey Mouse Wrist Watch (circa 1935)
Joshua Lionel Cowen (Lionel Trains) had a very prosperous company that seemed to dodge the 1929 stock market crash. But, the economic crisis really hit Lionel in 1931 when sales dropped dramatically as Americans tightened their belts. Lionel finally went into receivership. In late 1933, Lionel introduced the Mickey Mouse wind-up handcar and the reaction caught Lionel by surprise. Selling for $1 or less ($16 in 2007 dollars), Lionel sold over 200,000 units in under four months and could not keep up with demand. However, with a net of only $.50 or so Mickey's success could not get Lionel out of the hole. But it did bring Lionel much needed cash flow, positive business press and generated access to funding for other profitable projects.
Lionel Mickey Mouse Handcar (circa 1935)
In the end, it was a win-win situation. I'm not sure how much hard financial benefit Disney received from these two success stories, but they did serve to increase Disney's visibility in the marketplace and the success experienced by these two licensees certainly helped recruit other firms looking for similar financial results.
There was an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times from 1988 in which the reporter sought to answer "What is the most desirable Mickey Mouse collectible?" The author concluded that while both the watch and the handcar are both prime examples of items with broad appeal, the quality and durability of the Lionel Mickey Mouse Handcar earned it the number one slot.
After looking at some of the prices out there, this has become a real buyer's market. In all probability, the selling prices will continue to drop over the next year and this may be a good time to pick up some very nice items -- if you have the financial resources to do so.
----- DATABASE NOTES -----
SeqID-0581. 1930's Mickey Mouse Ingersoll watch with silver band and yellow face (circa 1935). This may have been from the first production year. [Item Length: 7”] Acquired 1998. SeqID-0581 Update: 9/16/2005
SeqID-0794. A Lionel #1100 Mickey Mouse Handcar (circa 1935). Acquired 2001. SeqID-0794. Update: 1/7/2001.
Seller's notes: This toy is seldom found in this condition with absolutely no touch ups or repaint. The figures are in mint condition and still have their original tails. The red handcar is mint on the front and top, and has only minor play or storage wear on the rear side, unseen while on display The hand car, bell and on/off switch all work as they should. Included is the original key, all 8 sections of track plus a rare flyer that shows the optional track layouts available at the time. The box is firm and complete with all staples intact -- lid corners carefully reinforced inside. The box has a sticker over the model number that reads "1101," an incorrect number (1101 is the number for a Lionel 2-4-2 locomotive). Produced during 1935-1937.
Notes & References:
I found a great web site that lets you put costs from years past into current dollars. Check out the calculator at "Measuring Worth."
Ken Polsson's Chronology of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse
Christopher Coleman's The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Lionel Trains
Charles Solomon "Mickey Mouse's Birth Was One Of Desperation." Los Angeles Times, Jul 23, 1988 (the link was too long to paste. Do a search to pull up the article)
Wikipedia: Lionel Corporation
A Mickey Mouse Watch History: An Introduction
Disney Achieves (searching on "mickey" and "mouse")