When I teach my class on “Walt Disney in American Culture” I really try to give the kids a sense of historical context; that is to try and put themselves into the time period in which they are studying, and attempt to understand the culture and its effects on the subject at hand…to not judge or view it with today’s sensibilities. I feel that this helps them achieve a truer sense of their topic. I mean, how do you explain the full and total immersion of the world into the Great Depression to young twenty-year olds? And if they can’t understand the Depression, how do they grasp how Mickey Mouse, as the “everyman,” became so important to America’s psyche? I am fortunate in that the class I teach is a Senior/Graduate level course, and 95% of my students are on their way to some form of advanced degree (MBA, MA, PhD, Law School). As such, they are able to comprehend a bit better the historical context of a certain subject we are studying.
I use several ideas of mine to try and illustrate the importance of historical context to them. These have been developed over the years of teaching this class, as I try to experiment to find out what they respond to. My favorite, is the use of oral history–personal and relevant memories from people that lived during the time or were involved with the topic. Second, I try and give them specific examples from the time period that affect them today. And finally, I trt to have actual artifacts from the period we are studying that help illustrate the history.
Taking the Great Depression as an example, I’ll give you an idea of each of my ideas and how I used them. With oral history, I tell them a story about when I went to stay with Ken and Polly Anderson. Ken and I were doing our oral history over the course of three years, where I would go to Los Angeles one week each month, to stay with Ken and Polly and do our work. We spent a good ten or so hours on the 1930s and Ken’s career with Disney during the Depression. They were married in the early 1930s, and times were tough, even when Ken began working at Disney in 1934 they were still living out of their automobile. In the old nature vs. nurture question, I fall strongly on the nurture side–the environment in which you spend your life strongly indicates who you are and how you think. I find this especially true of folks that grew up during the Depression, and Ken and Polly were no exception. The time I spent with them, they were both in their eighties, and were very active and healthy. Moreover, from Ken’s more than fifty years at Disney, they were well off and lived in a beautiful home on Palm Drive in La Canada, California. They did not want for anything, and could buy anything they desired (Ken was particularly fond of Porsche sports cars). Each morning we would all enjoy breakfast together, and Polly, the consummate hostess, always insisted on preparing the first meal of the day. One morning we had Corn Flakes that had an ant or two for extra flavor and texture. Ken and I joked about it (that’s the way he was). I discovered, that this was really just the tip of the proverbial ant iceberg, as quite a few ants had made their way into the box of Corn Flakes, which was only about half full. Rather than throw the box away, Polly instead put the box on a table and surrounded it with a ring of powdered ant poison. Of course, all (well most) of the ants came out for their treat and summarily died, leaving the cereal 99% ant free (better than hot dogs, I understand), which we then had for breakfast. This was totally fascinating to me, as they could have bought a Corn Flakes factory if they wanted. Yet, here was a perfect example of someone who grew up during the Depression, they wasted nothing!
For my second idea, I ask everybody in the room who is wearing a Timex watch to raise their hand (I cap the class at 40 students, but because of the topic, and depending on what film I am showing, I typically get upwards of 100 to 150 people). Depending on the fashions of the day, I typically get anywhere from 30% to 40% of the room that were wearing a Timex. I then explain to them the story of how Mickey Mouse saved the Ingersoll Watch Company during the Depression, and that, of course, Ingersoll became Timex (and so many others).
Finally, with my last idea, I bring out an original Ingersoll Mickey Mouse pocket watch for them to look at (tough in a large classroom, but we take a 10-minute break every hour). This is more fascinating to them the I ever thought it would be (so I show a lot of artifacts).
Ultimately, I think when the three ideas are put together to help explain a concept or time period, that it helps them grasp what I am talking about. Often, I’ll have students come up to me a week or two later, stating that they talked to their grandparents (or, great-grandparents) about the Depression and heard similar stories. And even at that, they still say it is difficult for them to understand.
So, what does this have to do with Christmas (and the second day thereof)? Well, in my typical Obsessive Compulsive Over-Explain Everything mode, I wanted to give you a background of historical context and what I mean by that term. The reasoning is that I feel most people (myself included) that did not live through the thirties, do not understand how important Walt Disney was to our country. Or how much Walt Disney and his world were part of our everyday life. So much so, that most everyone would have a Disney story, a Disney favorite, a Disney connection, or just make use of Disney during their daily routine. I encourage you to learn more about the various time periods in which Walt Disney lived and created, and I think you’ll end up with a lot deeper understanding and meaning of how truly important this man was to our country, and to a better part of the world!
A perfect example of Walt’s “omnipresence” during the 1930s, at least to me, is today’s item for the Second Day of Christmas here at the Institute. This is what historians (and collectors) call a “knock off,” which is something that is not licensed by Disney or makes use of the Disney product without permission. This can include everything from movies, publications, toys, endorsements, and so much more. The amount of Disney knock-offs in the 1930s is beyond anything one could even calculate. Seemingly, every time I turn around, I find some new Disney knock off from the 1930s, and usually not very well done. The item today is a Christmas Card from the firm of Lang, Fisher, and Kirk, Inc., and is a rarer example of a knock off simply because it is done well (art wise) and is quite clever. Keep in mind that anybody receiving this Christmas Card would know exactly everyone of these characters and the story behind it (except for the poor chicken). It is a clever use of personalities of the day that all will know, all will respect, and as such, implies sort of an endorsement of the firm (“Hey, if Snow White and Donald Duck use Lang, Fisher, and Kirk, then so should we!”).
I spent some time trying to find out what business the company was in, but could come up with nothing. My guess is manufacturing (common in the 1930s), or perhaps a law firm (I love Mickey carrying the stack of office work). The Christmas Card is circa 1937 or 1938, and the artwork is surprisingly well done. At the very least, the firm offers Walt an apology, perhaps with the hope of avoiding a lawsuit. But by this time in Disney history, Kay Kamen and Gunther Lessing were employed by the Disney Brothers, and they were very strict about protecting the company’s intellectual property! ‘Tis The Season To Go To Court.