The Mickey Mouse wristwatch: a pop-culture sensation that matured into an enduring style icon
The Mickey Mouse wristwatch is almost as iconic as the Disney character himself. The timepiece arrived on the scene in 1933 and had an instant and lasting impact, because – no pun intended – the timing was perfect. The rising popularity of the wristwatch, which first gained traction during World War I, combined with the advent of animated films with synchronized sound and the opening of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago united to fuel public demand for the product.
While it’s hard to imagine a world without the Mickey Mouse watch, its creation and its triumph were far from inevitable. The circumstances that yielded the watch were promising, but did not foretell a hit that would endure for almost a century and counting.
During the early 1930s, Walt Disney was still smarting from having lost control of his first star character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 1927. He fought back by founding his namesake studio and launching a new cartoon character, Mortimer Mouse, who bore a suspiciously strong resemblance to Oswald. Disney’s wife suggested renaming him Mickey, and the mouse met the world with that name in his 1928 animated debut short, dubbed Steamboat Willie.
Audiences were almost as captivated by Mickey’s whistling of the tune Steamboat Bill as they were with his animated adventures as a steamboat pilot. Synchronized sound was a fresh innovation in film, and Disney showed it off to great effect in the inaugural release from its studio. So integral was the combination of animation and sound to the success of the film studio that a clip of a black-and-white Mickey whistling cheerfully appears before every new Disney release, in recognition of the cultural juggernaut’s roots.
The blockbuster cartoon did not completely relieve the newborn studio’s money woes, however. It was the early 1930s, after all, and the Great Depression was raging. To bring in additional revenue, Walt Disney sold the exclusive merchandising rights to the Mickey Mouse character in 1932 to Herman Kamen, an advertising and merchandising salesman. Kamen’s initial products were a Mickey Mouse pocket watch and wristwatch. Their reception would confirm the wisdom of his commercial instincts.
Wrist watches (the two-word description prevailed then) existed, but were far from dominating the marketplace. Most still appeared in the form of the wristlet, a thin, dainty timepiece regarded as best suited to women. Nonetheless, Kamen contracted with Ingersoll-Waterbury, a struggling watchmaker, to manufacture both a pocket watch that retailed for $1.50 (about $34 today) and a wristwatch priced at $3.75 (now equivalent to $85). The faces of both sported a full-body image of Mickey Mouse telling the time by pointing his yellow-gloved hands at the correct numbers on the dial.
The timepieces debuted at the 1933 World’s Fair and were immediate best sellers. The success of the wrist-worn version led to broader general acceptance of that style of timepiece. It served as unbeatable advertising for Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons as well – every time wearers looked at their wrists, they saw Mickey smiling back at them. The products also saved Ingersoll-Waterbury from bankruptcy; the company lived on to become Timex in the 1960s.
The Ingersoll-Waterbury company continued manufacturing the Mickey Mouse wristwatch until 1971, selling millions in many formats and characters. Throughout the watch’s roughly 40 years of production, there were specific eras that delivered a scarce Mickey Mouse design. For example, the early editions featured a spinning second sweep hand featuring a trio of Mickeys chasing each other at the six o’clock position on the dial. By the 1940s, the Mickeys had been replaced with a single Mickey in a rectangular bezel. The 1960s were the minimalist era of the watch’s design: it didn’t have an image of Mickey at all, just the mouse’s name on the dial.
During the 1970s, the appearance of quartz movements and lower-cost electronic watches from Asia devastated the domestic watch market, and sales slowed considerably. Ingersoll-Waterbury stopped producing Mickey Mouse and the Disney character watches completely by 1971. Once the original manufacturer exited, other watch companies manufactured their own versions of the Mickey Mouse watches.
Seiko, a Japanese concern, produced Mickey Mouse watches during the 1980s and 1990s under license through its Lorus brand, with some subbing in musical notes and national flags for numerals. Rolex and Omega both made Mickey Mouse watches under license for special orders only. The private luxury watch label Gerald Genta also created Mickey Mouse and other Disney character wristwatches under license in limited quantities.
Several special anniversary editions of the Mickey Mouse wristwatch have been released as well, beginning with a 25th anniversary product in 1958 to a 60th anniversary edition marketed by Seiko in 1993. In addition, Swatch commissioned artist Damien Hirst to produce a set of two colorful limited edition wristwatches for the 90th anniversary of the Mickey Mouse character in 2017, known as the Spot Mickey and Mirror Spot Mickey.
Despite the dizzying array of iterations and choices available, collectors unquestionably favor the very earliest editions of the Mickey Mouse wristwatch. An original 1933 edition in good to near-mint condition, in working order and offered with its original cardboard box and instructions, is the Holy Grail.
When evaluating an original Mickey Mouse wristwatch, condition is the most important aspect. Its value depends on whether it has been serviced in the past and whether all its original parts are present and intact. Scratches, rust, visible water damage and missing or replaced parts on the bezel connecting the band all affect its performance at auction.
Certain characteristics of the original Mickey Mouse wristwatches help mark them as original. From 1933 until 1937, the watch had a round case and the dial was decorated with a black and white Mickey Mouse in red balloon pants and shoes with yellow gloves – not the white ones shown in the early cartoons. Mickey’s feet straddle a rotating wheel of three miniature Mickeys who chase each other around a smaller dial located between the numbers 5 and 7. These watches have a rounded clear bezel with the words ‘Made in U.S.A’ to the left of Mickey and ‘Mickey Mouse Ingersoll’ next to the number 3. Also, the metal strap has small Mickey Mouse charms attached near the bezel.
From 1938 to 1942, the Mickey Mouse wristwatches featured a long rectangular case with five decorative notches and the dial had a rotating seconds hand in place of the number 6. A serial number and a US Time stamp mark the reverse of the wristwatches beginning in the 1940s, although sometimes the serial number is missing. In 1948, the numbers were luminous, and by 1950, the numbers appeared in red. The round case returned in the 1960s, but without an image of Mickey and only the words ‘Mickey Mouse’ on its face.
While the original 1933 wristwatch hasn’t been actively reproduced, experts have said other early versions, such as the 1934 edition, have been reissued. Check with the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (nawcc.org) for collectors and dealers specializing in the Mickey Mouse wristwatch for help with spotting possible reproductions.
The Mickey Mouse wristwatch is not as popular as it was when it debuted, but it has yet to disappear from the public consciousness. Even if you’ve never owned one, you can easily call an image of the dial to mind. If you own an Apple watch, you can download a digital version of the famous Mickey Mouse watch face, or a Minnie Mouse version if you prefer.
If you tap the Apple Watch dial, the cartoon character will speak the time – a feature that underscores the power of uniting animation with sound, something Walt Disney grasped and ran with decades ago. The vintage watch market is large and healthy, and demand for analog Mickey Mouse watches remains strong. Generations past, present and future know their Mickey Mouse watches like the backs of their hands.