When we think of Disney, it is impossible not to think about Mickey Mouse, the iconic character of this conglomerate of companies that is one of the most relevant ones in the world. Some do know that Mickey was not going to be the face of the company in its beginnings since, instead, the creator of this firm, Walt Disney, wanted his flagship character to be a rabbit named Oswald.
But what few know is that the true origin of Mickey might have not occurred with Oswald, but with a toy company that invented a piece whose appearance can cause nightmares in those with sensitive minds. But let us go step by step through this story.
Before Mickey, There Was Oswald
It was in 1927 when Walt Disney received, from Universal Studios, the task of inventing a creature that could become the main face of the company. Disney got down to business, devising Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an animated character with a round white face, button nose, and floppy black ears, who was the main character in a series of short films for Universal.
However, the relationship between the creative and the company did not end well: Disney ended up breaking his relationship with Universal after discovering that the firm had taken away from him the rights to his animated character and that it was paying him a very low salary for his effort in animating him.
After saying goodbye to Universal, Disney decided to start his own studies with the support of his friend and animator, Ub Iwerks. Together, they devised the creation of a new character that had a certain resemblance to Oswald but would be more attractive to the audience.
It is assumed that this is how Mickey Mouse was born in 1928, a character with round and shortened ears, whose inspiration, according to other sources, came to Disney during a train trip from New York to Los Angeles that he took the same year, and whose name originally was Mortimer, though this moniker changed soon because Walt’s wife disliked it.
The ‘Real’ Mickey Mouse?
Some connoisseurs of Disney’s work and its inventions have said that the true origin of this mouse is far from the romantic story that everyone has been told for decades and that it is actually a kind of “copy” of a rather forgotten toy. The one who delved further into this other origin story was the writer Craig L. Andrews, who in 2002 published a book entitled Broken Toy: A Man’s Dream, a Company’s Mystery that talked about his wife’s grandfather’s life. Torrence Dietz was the owner of a toy company that made a wooden mouse with the same name Disney chose for his star.
With this information, several collectors began to make their own inquiries, until the existence of this toy was actually proven. It reached exorbitant prices at eBay auctions, as the PBS program “History Detectives” was able to verify. This toy apparently came to light in 1927, as the property of the Performo-Toy Company, which is originally from Middletown, Pennsylvania, and was inspired by an idea from the designer and company co-founder Rene Grove.
The toymaker company, formed in 1925, specialized in wooden products, with a collection of between 25 and 40 pieces. These included signature toys like Joy Boy, Dancing Girl, Bouncing Trixie, and the popular Mickey Mouse, made in black and white with a few red touches. Grove patented his idea on August 17, 1926, two years before the arrival of Disney’s Mickey, but this toy wasn’t released until months later, becoming one of the company’s biggest hosts, which sold it until 1931.
George Borgfeldt helped get the toy out of Pennsylvania and began to sell it throughout the northeastern United States, which is why many say that Disney had probably already seen it on one of his trips to New York, and that’s where he got his inspiration to invent his version of the mouse. Unfortunately, the success of this wooden Mickey came to an end in 1931, the year in which Disney released its first Mickey toy, which ironically was also sold through Borgfeld’s company.
And while Dietz’s toy company apparently had everything to gain in a legal match against Disney, it was Disney itself who took him to court, alleging that the Performo-Toy Company had stolen his idea for Mickey Mouse. Evidently, the small-time toy company lost the case.
The court ordered the company to stop producing its wooden toy and to destroy all prototypes it still had in the existence of it, as well as take it out from any catalogs featuring it.
With this loss, the toy firm eventually closed, being forgotten by thousands of consumers, as its beloved wooden Mickey, who was able to be rescued years later to the gratitude of the memory of the world, with the help of several collectors who managed to obtain it through auctions.