On December 21, 1937, Walt Disney released his first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Accompanying the movie, Disney and his company developed character-related merchandise, including a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs radio now preserved in the museum’s collection. Its artistic design differs from other radios of that era, shedding light on questions of merchandising and business, radio technology, and the growth of national culture.
Emerson Radio Corporation designed and produced this novelty Snow White radio during the latter part of the Great Depression, a global economic crisis. In late 1929, the stock market crashed, banks and many other businesses closed, and millions of Americans lost their jobs. People cut back on spending for years, saving where they could. However, they continued spending money on some items, such as movies and radios, to help them get through the hard times. Both media flourished during the Depression. Combined, films and radio shows helped spread a nationwide culture where many people saw and heard the same films and programs at the same time.
The nation had started to recover from the Depression when Walt Disney released Snow White in 1937. Some consumers resumed buying more than just necessities. Anticipating the movie’s nationwide popularity, Disney developed a range of supporting merchandise. In addition to this radio, he authorized products such as Christmas lights, toys, and even jewelry. In his book, The Magic Kingdom, author Steven Watts observes that Snow White was the first time a studio created an extensive merchandising campaign to release alongside a film.
Watt notes that the movie permitted viewers to disappear into an imaginary world for a while, to reset themselves, before facing tough issues in the real world. Wildly successful, the movie touched many people’s lives, and they responded in part by bringing a piece of the film home. Disney’s merchandising scheme sustained interest in the movie and generated additional profits beyond the box office. As author Neal Gabler notes in his book Walt Disney, the company’s merchandising effort for Snow White brought in over six million dollars in the eighteen months after the release of the film.
The Snow White radio was designed with children in mind—children like 9-year-old Jeanne Imgram, whose parents gave her this radio, now in the museum’s collection. Advances in radio technology during the previous twenty years made radios much easier for consumers, even young ones, to operate. Listening to the radio in the late 1910s usually involved headphones and morse code, as seen in the Sears Radio catalog advertisement below. However, by 1937, most manufacturers made stylish table-top radios that did not need headphones. Just as importantly, these new, mass-produced radios only received programs; they did not have the ability to transmit a signal. In this way, radio went from being an interactive two-way medium to a one-way flow of information.
Audiences’ enthusiastic reception of the film Snow White, combined with consumers’ acceptance of products like the radio, encouraged Walt Disney’s company to continue producing entertainment products that affect people to this day. Their best-known character is the big cheese himself, Mickey Mouse, seen not only in movies and television but in thousands of different products—many of which have also become part of the museum’s collections.
Today, merchandise and film are intermeshed—making it difficult to say which came first. Both contribute to a culture in which entertainment products are immediately recognized by people the world over. They help make this a small world after all.
Connie Holland is a museum specialist in the Division of Work and Industry, and she visits Walt Disney World as often as possible.