-By Robert Heide and John Gilman
Growing up in the 1940s in the New Jersey town of Irvington, the Thanksgiving feast was always presided over by my father. In atten-dance were my brother Walter (12 years older), my sister Evelyn (15 years older), me, and, of course, my mother, who prepared, entirely from scratch, the imposing, majestic turkey with all the trimming, gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Sometimes, my Uncle Freddy, who owned a diner in Newark, was there with my cousin Bobby. He was called Big Bobby and I was called, much to my annoyance, Little Bobby.
We all knew that Christmastime followed gobble-gobble turkey time. Wasn’t a giant Mickey Mouse balloon featured in the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade? Yes, he was. But my German immigrant parents went straight back to work — Ludwig to the Singer Sewing Ma-chine Co. in Elizabeth, Olga back to canning and cooking (more often than not) pork roast with sauerkraut. Now and then, though I couldn’t eat them, pigeons and rabbits raised in the backyard were served. Ludwig made and drank beer in the cellar and also maintained a Victory Garden to help put more food on the table. Also in the cellar, Olga stocked the cupboards with home-made peach jams, preserves, and apple sauce. And she baked goodies that to my mind were the best ever. These were often served up to her ladies club members in the dining room for the monthly card games.
At last, Christmastime arrived, with Santa Claus at the helm, and I would accompany my mother to help with her shopping in down-town Newark, most often at Bamberger’s and Hahn’s department stores, S. Klein’s and Woolworth’s Five and Dime.
— Robert Heide
Many years later, in 1973, John and I took the path train to Newark’s Bamberger’s to see the “Mouseum” put together by our friend, Mel Birnkrant, the world’s premier Mickey Mouse collector. What was unique and signif-icant about the exhibit was that Disney merchandise that originally had been sold in Bamberger’s and other department stores during the Depression— the dolls, games, toys, books, watches, clocks, radios, figurines, Christmas tree lights and ornaments — were now being exhibited almost as if they were art. Presented in well-lit glass-front display boxes built directly in the walls, they were a sight to behold for children and adults alike. A British Mickey Mouse gas mask in one of the boxes, a relic worn by English children to protect them from German poison gas during World War II, gazed ominously out into the room.
The Christmas season is the biggest one for toy manufacturers; and the many toys featur-ing Mickey and Minnie Mouse and their friends found under the tree on Christmas mornings by children in the Depression ‘30s, and during the World War II years and after, are eagerly sought by collectors who have de-veloped a new appreciation for these artful, themed objects. At the Park Avenue Art and Antiques show last year, these authors encountered a very attractive eight-inch-high tin litho Mickey Mouse bank manufactured in 1931 by the German company Tip, to be sold in Great Britain and American markets. When you push down one of Mickey’s ears, his red tongue emerges for a child to place a penny on. Pushing the ears again, Mickey then swallows the coin and closes his mouth, but not before ex-hibiting a toothy grin and showing off his teeth. On the back of the bank was printed this slogan: “Smile Please — If you only pull my ear, you will see a tongue appear — Place a coin upon my tongue, save your money while you’re young.” When we asked the price of the little Mickey bank we were told we could have it for $45,000. Very rare also, and considered by many to be the ultimate Disney collectible, is the painted nine-inch aluminum, brass, or cast-iron figural Mickey Mouse bank made in France. At the Mouseum in Newark this bank was displayed under a thick Plexiglas cover on a white Doric column, a bright beam of light shining down, like some strange artifact dug up from a lost civilization that might have ex-isted prior to the technological age.
Some of the Mickey Christmas specialty items, in addition to a good selection of plush dolls in a variety of sizes and Disney greeting cards from Hall Brothers, included the spectacular Mickey Mouse light sets from the Noma Electric Corp., New York. These Mazda tree lights have varicolored Beetleware shades featuring decal appliqués of the early Disney characters including Pluto, Donald Duck, Clarabelle Cow, and Horace Horsecollar. Dennison Mfg. Co. created a line of wrapping papers with Mickey and Minnie engaged in a variety of holiday activities that included din-ing, decorating the tree, waiting patiently by the fire for Santa, and sleeping peacefully on Christmas Eve. Lucky were the kids who re-ceived the Lionel Train Corporation’s nine-inch metal windup handcars, which had wood composition figures of Minnie and Mickey pumping away like mad, bells ringing, on six feet of circular track; all sold for a dollar in the 1934 Christmas season, and only 94 cents by mail from Sears. Also under a dollar were the celluloid and bisque figurines imported from Japan and distributed to dime stores across the country by the Geo. Borgfeldt Co., whose headquarters were in Greenwich Village. Some, where Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, and Donald are playing at winter snow sports, are particularly engaging. The ultimate snow fun, though a bit pricier, could be had with the 30-inch-long Mickey Mouse sled made by the manufacturers of the famous Flexible Flyer, S. L. Allen & Co., of Philadelphia in 1935. Re-garding Mickey today, most people relate to the Mickey Mouse watch made originally by the Waterbury Clock Co. in Connecticut us-ing their old stock of WWI watches they had in bins in a storage area. Kay Kamen was the merchandising genius who signed up with the Disney brothers in 1933 and signed a contract as the sole licensing representative for the fast-growing company. The first thing he did was contact the owners of the clock company, suggesting they put Mickey on the watch and devise arms and hands pointing to the time. This saved the company from bankruptcy.
Robert Heide and John Gilman are co-authors of three books published by the Disney Company. They include Disneyana— Classic Collectibles 1928–1958, The Mickey Mouse Watch — From the Beginning of Time, and Mickey Mouse — The Evolution, The Legend, The Phenomenon! All are available online at Amazon or AbeBooks.
All Photos from The Author’s Collection