In the 1930s, in the depths of the Depression, a new kind of economics began to emerge from an unlikely source: a cartoon character named Mickey Mouse and his animated friends. Mickey was the creation of a young Los Angeles-based artist named Walt Disney. Along with partner Ub Iwerks, Disney had bounced around Hollywood and New York with some fits and starts, but no real major successes. Then in 1928 the two artists tried a new mouse character in place of an earlier Disney rabbit named Oswald, which Universal Studios claimed as their property. Thereafter, Disney vowed to secure his inventions, and he and his partner created a new mouse character. Disney first thought to name his mouse “Mortimer,” but his wife Lillian suggested “Mickey” to his and history’s good fortune. Disney and Iwerks first introduced the Mickey Mouse cartoon character to the world in a May 1928 silent short titled Plane Crazy. That first cartoon was not a success, as Disney then lacked the needed distribution channels. But the next cartoon released in November 1928, Steamboat Willie, was a success. A short film just under 8 minutes as most then were, Steamboat Willie was the first to synchronize sound with movement and character – in this case Mickey whistling as he piloted his boat.
Steamboat Willie met with great success among the movie-going public. Disney’s earlier Mickey cartoons were then reissued with sound, followed by a dozen new ones – all issued in 1929. Walt Disney Productions was formed that year as well, and the company began turning out the short, animated films – “shorts,” as they were called – on a regular basis. By 1932, Disney received a special Academy Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse, whose series was moved into color by 1935. Along the way, a cast of supporting animated characters were introduced in the Mickey films – Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto and others.
Alongside the Mickey Mouse series, Disney also produced short cartoon films called the “Silly Symphonies” that were, according to the Walt Disney Family Museum, “more daring, quirkier and more diverse” than anything in the Mickey Mouse series. Some of these films were also highly artistic, and helped bring notice to Disney & Co. on that level as well. Among the most famous and remembered of the Silly Symphonies are: The Skeleton Dance, Flowers and Trees, The Old Mill, and Three Little Pigs. Disney’s animated characters populated these shorts as well, including – Donald Duck, the Big Bad Wolf, Elmer Elephant, and Max Hare, among others. Still, it was Mickey Mouse who became Disney’s star, and it turned out, well beyond the movie houses.
America in the 1930s, however, was not in jovial state. Following the 1929 stock market crash, the economy deteriorated steadily. Through 1932, Herbert Hoover was president and he did not believe the federal government should become directly involved in fixing the economy. In 1933, shortly after President Roosevelt was elected and inaugurated, “New Deal” programs sought to stimulate the economy and provide jobs. Still, there was a long road ahead. Unemployment by then had reached historic levels, as the nation’s financial system teetered on the edge of collapse. In the midst of this, the country looked for any signs of optimism, recovery, and prosperity ahead. And some of that came from a surprising quarter — from Walt Disney’s animated creations. The short Mickey Mouse cartoons had become a hit with movie goers of all ages, and new films of Mickey and his friends were being churned out by Disney and his artists at a rate of about one per month. But most importantly for the 1930s, the cartoons were proving to be a business stimulus. By 1935 Mickey Mouse and his friends had become a merchandising phenomenon. No less a cheerleader than the New York Times chronicled Mickey and Disney’s rising...