Licensing Pooh

Town centers the world over sport statues of their famous sons and daughters, and it’s no different with tiny White River, Ontario. Halfway along the 36-hour Greyhound haul between Toronto and Winnipeg, buses pull over to the side of the Trans-Canada Highway next to a larger-than-life statue of Winnie-the-Pooh. But the pudgy red-shirted creature whose childlike features smile out at visitors reproduces neither the real-life black bear cub that put White River on the map, nor the beady-eyed equanimous figure of E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations — and his metamorphosis tells the tale of a massive leap forward for the commercialization of childhood.

The Winnie-the-Pooh familiar to American children was the brainchild of media pioneer Stephen Slesinger, whose 1930 acquisition of the rights to A. A. Milne’s children’s stories launched modern licensing. Under Slesinger’s influence, kiddie characters have become corporate pitchmen, flogging clothing brands, toys, food products, band-aids, toothbrushes, you name it. It all started with American entrepreneurial gusto and a very English (and sort of Canadian) bear.

In 1914, Lt. Harry Colebourn shipped to Britain and then on to the Western Front to serve in the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. On a stop in White River, Ontario, he bought a female black bear cub for $20 from a hunter who had killed its mother, and named the bear “Winnie” after his hometown of Winnipeg. Winnie accompanied Colebourn across the Atlantic, and became the unofficial mascot of the Fort Garry Horse, the cavalry regiment Colebourn was assigned to. When the regiment embarked for Europe, Colebourn left Winnie in the care of the London Zoo, where her admirers included A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne. Christopher named his teddy bear after Winnie, and A. A. Milne wrote two collections of children’s stories about a (male) bear named Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends in Hundred Acre Wood. They were instant hits, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Stephen Slesinger was twenty-seven years old when Milne’s second Pooh book was published in 1928, and doing very well indeed for a man his age. The son of European-Jewish immigrants, Slesinger had established himself as a literary agent in New York with a promising stable that included several successful authors of children’s and adventure stories. But Slesinger wasn’t a book man at heart: he saw himself as peddling childhood magic, not just words on a page, and vigorously trajected that magic into a variety of media — some of his own invention. Slesinger was a new media enthusiast, and an early pioneer of pop-up books and television animation.

As America plunged into the Great Depression, Slesinger struck gold. Milne’s stories based on his son’s stuffed animals had obvious merchandising tie-ins, and Slesinger smelled a hit: for $1000 up front and two-thirds of the royalties, he acquired the merchandising, television, radio, and other trade rights to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Rebranding Pooh and friends in a more cute-and-cuddly form than Shepard’s contemplative pen-and-ink drawings, Slesinger boldly prospected for markets. The Pooh doll was a natural, and radio and vinyl recordings performed well, but such tie-ins were hardly new: Peter Rabbit had existed in doll form since 1903, and Little Orphan Annie had her own radio program. Slesinger’s true innovation was to put Pooh’s face on products that had no obvious relation to the character.

Rather than work to sell Pooh, Slesinger put Pooh to work selling other products, like board games and jigsaw puzzles. Slesinger recognized that Milne’s charismatic bear could be his own salesman, and that his face was far more trustworthy than any corporate logo. The results were astonishing. In under two years, Slesinger’s $1000 gamble had become a $50 million industry, and at a time when many American businesses were foundering. Milne’s royalties from Slesinger’s merchandising efforts dwarfed the royalties from the books upon which these tie-ins were based.

Slesinger’s success with Winnie-the-Pooh rested two momentous insights. First, even when Americans are forced to tighten their belts, it’s easy to persuade them to spend money on their children. And second, there isn’t a children’s product whose appeal can’t be enhanced by the face of a beloved children’s character. These insights spread quickly, and by 1932 Kay Kamen was shopping Disney products of every description over the height and breadth of the country. By the time Bill Watterson refused merchandising tie-ins to Calvin and Hobbes in the late nineties, licensing was so ubiquitous that his refusal seemed downright rebellious.

Slesinger died a very rich man in 1953, and in 1961 his widow licensed Winnie-the-Pooh to Disney. Today, Pooh outsells Disney originals like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, bringing in as much as $6 billion annually — about 20% of the world’s total character licensing business — from keychains, steering wheel covers, mousepads, oh, and even books. However, the colossal revenue stream derived from childhood wonder has generated some very adult and un-wonderful spats: recent years have witnessed several high-profile court cases as Milne’s heirs, Slesinger’s heirs, and Disney slug it out over the division of spoils.