If you were an American kid 85 years ago, on June 9th, 1934 you might well have sat down to watch The Wise Little Hen, one of Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphony” cartoons that ran between 1929 and 1938. The hero of this tale is a workshy duck who – along with Mickey Mouse, created by Ub Iwerks in 1928 – would go on to become one of Disney’s best-loved characters. That duck, of course, is Donald, the ultimate anti-hero; modern man in all his splendour… and neuroses.
Ingersoll, a pioneering American watch firm, was first to put these fabulously popular characters onto its dials. Established in 1892 in New York by brothers Robert and Charles Ingersoll, the brand sold watches costing just one dollar (a day’s wages back then).
In 1933 Disney gave the Ingersoll brothers production rights for a watch that would delight children (and adults) with a Mickey Mouse figure whose arms rotated to show hours and minutes. Two years later, Donald made his dial debut. The venture was a huge success, selling 25 million watches by 1957. The Ingersoll-Disney partnership lasted until 1971 and was partially revived in 2010 with three product lines.
“Every boy has an Ingersoll coming to him” promised a 1923 ad, and it’s true to say that generations of children were given a fun and inexpensive introduction to watches thanks to Mickey and Donald. These now highly collectible pieces capture the mood of an entire era. Will we say the same of the sixty-odd models of smartwatch that have flooded the market? Let’s ask Donald, 85 years young, as he celebrates his multiple (mis)adventures and more than a few sweeps of the dial.
He swore he wouldn’t be late, and yet here I am, at the appointed time and place, and not a duck on the horizon. I might have known: can you really trust a guy who’s been a ghostbuster, a fire chief, an aviator, a spud-bashing sky trooper, a bellhop, an explorer, a member of the Foreign Legion, a bricklayer, even a clock cleaner?
But here he comes at last, waddling as fast as he can.
– Nice to meet you, Mr. Duck.
– Nice to meet you too. And please, call me Donald!
– I take it your alarm didn’t go off?
– Oh it did… In fact, remind me I have to buy a new one…
– So it’s your birthday! Tell me about that famous day, June 9th 1934, and The Little Wise Hen – the film that launched you as an actor and lifetime member of the Idle Hour Club.
– I was young, still wet behind the ears, not yet the duck I am today (you can see they hadn’t quite got my beak right). There I was, fresh out the egg and already being picked on.
– By that hen! Help her plant her corn, are you kidding? No more than a duckling and already forced to work! As semiologist Omar Calabrese would say, better to be independent than under another’s rule. At least he understood me.
– For sure! And where did he say that?
– In an essay, Serio ludere. He knew I was just “playing seriously” like any kid would. Which is how I became famous and ended up keeping time on a watch dial.
– And how did that happen?
– Thanks to my pa…
– Your pa?
– Walt Disney. He licenced the Ingersoll brothers in New York to manufacture watches with you-know-who on the dial.
– That mouse. Always in my way!
– You mean Mickey.
– That’s the one. Of course, they soon realised I was the star and made a watch just for me. The first ones came out in 1935, the year after my screen debut. I was holding blue and red semaphore flags for the hands. It’s the rarest watch in the collection.
– Do you still have one?
– Nope. Uncle Scrooge took it in exchange for a loan I never paid back.
– So tell me, did you and Mickey ever share a dial?
– Hmph, yes, once. Years later. Lorus, part of the Seiko group, produced Disney watches from 1986 until the late 1990s. They made one with just about every Disney character, and that’s how I finished up next to the mouse. Goofy got one that ran backwards! The numbers are written counter-clockwise and the hands run backwards.
– Not very practical.
– True, but that’s Goofy for you. They even did one for Uncle Scrooge. He wasn’t that popular at first, being the money-grabbing miser he is, then along came the 90s and yuppies and Gordon Gekko’s famous “Greed is good”, and suddenly Uncle Scrooge is flavour of the month! Lorus gave him a state-of-the-art battery-driven watch that didn’t need winding. Someone who thinks time is money had to end up on a watch dial sooner or later!
– And what is time for you?
– Time for my nap. Great talking to you!