Beyond Mickey, Disney’s most iconic characters are probably the Disney princesses.
From Cinderella and her missing slipper to spunky mermaid Ariel, the Disney princess is a Disney staple, despite not officially being codified into a “Disney Princess” brand until the 2000s. The criteria for who gets to be a Disney Princess is nebulous (for instance, though Anna and Elsa are both royalty, they’re technically not Disney Princesses since they’re the face of their own brand). But one thing’s certain: Disney’s princesses have always been mega popular.
In Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara, author Emily Zemler explores the Disney Princess phenomenon, diving into the films that introduced the characters, the actors behind them, and their cultural legacy. Polygon is happy to share an exclusive excerpt about the princess who started it all.
You might attribute Disney’s ever-growing lines of merchandise as a 21st-century phenomenon, but it was actually Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that kicked off Disney’s aggressive product marketing. In an unprecedented move for the time, Snow White tie-ins began to roll out before the movie came out. Overall, there were about 2,000 Snow White-themed products out there — which is a lot, even by today’s standards. Read below for a glimpse at the strange Snow White merch that the Disney adults back in the day sought out.
A Disney character in every home
In 1932, Walt and Roy O. Disney hired Herman S. Kamen, an advertising executive known as Kay Kamen, as the merchandising man for Mickey Mouse. Over the next three years, Kamen oversaw the creation of thousands of pieces of Mickey Mouse merchandise, from wristwatches to breakfast cereal to figurines. He worked with manufacturers as well as department stores to ensure that Disney characters were familiar in the lives of the American public, generating a demand for branded items and creating an expectation that those products would be constantly available, as well. It was a strategy that become common throughout Hollywood. “Kay Kamen invented the whole licensing industry,” noted Tom Tumbusch, publisher of Tomart’s Disneyana Update. “Not just for Disney, alone; others followed suit.”
A year before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Kamen began to prepare an extensive marketing campaign intended to bring the film’s story and characters into the homes of their audience. Traditionally, film merchandise was unveiled after a film’s release, and only if the story was popular and resonated with the public; Snow White marked the first time movie merch was available before anyone had even seen the film. By October of 1937, months ahead of the premiere of Snow White, toys and themed items appeared on store shelves. Seiberling Latex Products Co., which had previously created Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck figurines, made hand-painted rubber figurines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which became so popular that they sold out several times even before the film’s release. Seiberling quickly realized it had to ramp up production to prepare for the release of the film. In total, more than 2,000 products were created for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
“Walt saw an opportunity to have merchandise be made available before a film was in theaters to get his version of the characters in front of people so they were ready for that film,” explains Libby Spatz, Disney Consumer Products Senior Librarian and Archivist. “This changed the entertainment merchandising business structure. Suddenly, there was more conversation going on about films, about what was coming, about the characters. People became accustomed to having the merchandise available as soon as they realized the film was something they were interested in.
The amount of Snow White-themed merchandise was staggering, even by today’s standards. Consumers could buy everything from Snow White watering cans to carpet sweepers to household bleach and ammonia to Armour’s specially branded Star Jubilee Ham and Star Bacon. Kroger’s grocery stores sold an exclusive set of collectible glasses, while Swift’s Allsweet Margarine ran a campaign where fans could mail in package clippings along with ten cents to receive Snow White seed packets. There were wristwatches, cut-out books, coloring sets, children’s blocks, doll-shaped soap, board games, paper dolls, and even a lamp that showcased the princess standing over her wishing well. It was evidence that consumers, when faced with the choice between an ordinary product and an experiential one, would always opt for magic.
Previously, several companies, including the Knickerbocker Toy Company and Richard G. Krueger, had sold Disney character dolls, from Mickey Mouse to Red Riding Hood. The arrival of Snow White, a charming, beautiful princess, meant many Snow White dolls, most of which were released in 1938. Ideal Toy Company manufactured three different editions of Snow White in doll form, one of which was made using the brand’s Shirley Temple head mold, and Richard G. Krueger Company sold cloth dolls with velvet and organdy dresses. Madame Alexander, a doll maker known for its high-end fashion dolls, released a series of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs marionettes in 1938, featuring Snow White and all of the Seven Dwarfs, as well as the evil Queen, the Witch, Prince Charming, and the Huntsman. In 1939, the Snow White marionette, whose head was designed by illustrator Tony Sarg, was advertised as being sold for $3.65. Several types of paper dolls, with cut-out dresses, were also notably popular with consumers in those days.
Games, too, were a must-have item for fans of the film. Several Snow White board games were produced, including Parker Brothers’ Walt Disney’s Own Game – Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs, a Candyland-style board game where players rushed to wake up Snow White. There were also playing cards, puzzles, and card games. The film products provided lots of opportunities for lovers of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to enjoy their favorite movie characters at home, putting Disney on a path to present merchandise for each new film release with more and more fervor.
Disney Princess: Beyond the Tiara is out now.