The Mickey Mouse watch put thousands of people to work in Waterbury, Conn., during the depths of the Great Depression.
The employment boomlet resulted from the reluctant marriage of the Disney Company to a floundering clock company. Walt Disney himself didn’t believe the cartoon rodent could sell World War I-era timepieces.
But oh, could Mickey sell watches.
It all started in 1932, when the once-dominant Waterbury Clock Company was struggling. The 10-year-old Disney Company was struggling. A Kansas City advertising man named Herman ‘Kay’ Kamen saved them both.
Disney hired Kamen as his licensing agent. He worked out of a Manhattan office, hiring out Mickey to hawk products.
Kamen suggested a Mickey Mouse watch to Walt Disney, who said, “It’ll never sell.”
Waterbury Clock Co.
The Waterbury Clock Company began as a department of Benedict & Burnham, a local brass manufacturer. It made wheels and gears from brass, and spun off as its own company on March 27, 1857. For years the Waterbury Clock Company was one of the biggest makers of clocks in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley, known as the Switzerland of America.
The company also made cheap pocket watches for the Ingersoll brothers, Robert and Charles, under their brand name. When the United States entered World War I, U.S. artillery gunners needed to read time quickly. The Waterbury Clock Company modified the Ingersoll ladies’ Midget pocket watch to become military wristwatches, with canvas straps and luminescent numbers.
After the war ended, Ingersoll entered bankruptcy protection. The Waterbury Clock Company picked up Ingersoll. By the early 1930s, Waterbury Clock, too, faced financial disaster. Then along came Mickey Mouse.
The Mickey Mouse Watch
On May 22, 1933, the company submitted a patent application for a Mickey Mouse watch.
Ingersoll-Waterbury also made a Mickey Mouse pocket watch. Both Mickey Mouse watches had a picture of Mickey on the dial with his hands telling the minutes and hours. A small dial at the bottom counted the seconds, with three little Mickeys chasing each other.
The cheap cheerful watch was just what the public wanted. During a promotion at Macy’s, 11,000 Mickey Mouse watches sold in one day. In a little over two years, Ingersoll-Waterbury sold more than 2.5 million Mickey Mouse watches at $2.98 apiece. During that time, its workforce grew from 200 to 3,100.
By 1957, the 25 millionth watch was presented to Walt Disney.
In the 1950s, the company took the Mickey Mouse watch off the market and began selling a line of reliable and inexpensive watches. They called them Timex.
The watch returned to the market in 1968, and other companies and designers have sold it since then. Novelist Dan Brown puts a Mickey Mouse watch on Robert Langdon’s wrist as a reminder to stay young at heart.
Images: Vintage Mickey Mouse watch By Joe Haupt from USA – Vintage Mickey Mouse Character Watch By Bradley Time, Swiss Made, Analog (Mechanical – Hand Wind), Measures 30mm x 37mm, Original Black Plastic Band, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69522717. This story was updated in 2022.