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How Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck Became the First Book Merch

How Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck Became the First Book Merch
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Palina Dolia

You often want to boast about your new hobby to the whole world to know. Got hooked on a book? Buy bookmarks with quotes Discovered a new fancy music band? Hurry up, you need a T-shirt with their logo! Impressed by a new film? Well, you get the train of thought. No matter what we admire, there is a suitable merch somewhere in the world – clothes, accessories and other branded items. It is believed that the era of merch began with Disney's Snow White and the release of the main character, gnomes and kind animal friends toys. But few people know that the first real merchandise was... bookish. Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen, today we'll take a look at how Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter became pioneers in this difficult endeavour and what came of it.

When the cartoon "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" appeared on the screens of cinemas in 1937, shops were flooded with a huge number of licensed themed goods. Tea sets, clockwork toys, sand buckets and board games were all incredibly popular and well enough to fill Walt Disney's studio budget. Today, almost a hundred years later, film companies and animation studios earn almost as much from the merchandise as from the released film, because rental ends in a month, while toys in stores stay in demand much longer. Whatever you are hooked on now has been already licensed and turned into a souvenir.

Where did it all start?

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In order to trace the history of official merchandise, it is worth going back a few decades before the Snow White to a large house in Bolton Gardens in London. It was there that on July 28, 1866, Helen Beatrix Potter was born, who gave us books about Peter Rabbit, the noble Jemima Puddle-Duck and other kind children's stories loved all over the world. As a child, Beatrix rarely left home, but at the same time, she was very fond of nature. Frogs, mice, a hedgehog, the newt Isaac Newton and even a bat, but most importantly – two fluffy rabbits, Peter and Benjamin lived in her nursery. Beatrix often drew her little friends from life, putting on them adorable frock coats and dresses. And of course, Peter Rabbit's coat was already in a distinctive blue colour even then.

Her passion for wildlife and love of rabbits once prompted Beatrix to recount the adventures of Peter and Benjamin in a letter to the former governess's son, Noel. Mischievous Peter fascinated him and his brothers. And, of course, they asked for more. So Beatrix began writing a book. She took this very letter as a primary source, and supplemented the text with her own illustrations. At first, finding a publisher turned out to be a bit of a challenge, so Beatrix printed the first edition of 450 copies at her own expense. Thus, the book "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was published in 1901. In 1902, she finally caught the eye of publisher Frederick Warne, and the book became an incredible success! 28,000 copies were sold in its first year! People loved Peter and his blue coat. This book was followed by stories about Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle-Duck, hedgehog laundress Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and other animals.

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Despite the incredible popularity of Peter Rabbit, Warne did not bother registering the copyrights for the book in America, which gave rise to an insane amount of illegally printed copies, as well as a couple of questionable quality sequels, such as "Peter Rabbit and Jimmy Chipmunk." Beatrix Potter, clearly, was left without royalties from these books. However, this taught her a lot.

From the very first appearance of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix dreamed of bringing him to life not only on the pages of books. Inspired by the promotional plush toys of the London department store Harrods, she took to sewing a soft version of Peter as a prototype. In addition, some of the stuffed toys had already begun to be signed with the names of Beatrix's heroes on store shelves, so it was clear: she must act decisively. The work on the plush Peter was going well, and Beatrix knew what the final result should be. She even made the bunny a matching moustache and sideburns from the nap of her paintbrushes. However, some of her ideas were quite curious. For example, Beatrix wrote the following to one of her publishers, Norman Ward, who also licensed merchandise:

"I make Peter's patterns out of calico and I don't know yet what it will look like, but I'm sure his snout will be beautiful... I think I could make him stand on his feet if I sewed lead bullets into his paws!"

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However, the plush bunny avoided ammunition.

So, in December 1903, Beatrix Potter patented Peter Rabbi, which became one of the first patents for a literary character. From now on, any manufacturer who wanted to name his toy hare Peter Rabbit has to answer for this in court.

Following the toys, a board game appeared on the shelves by 1904, the production of which was also closely watched by Beatrix Potter. It was a simple game with a lined field and colourful chips, in which another character of Beatrix's books, Mr. McGregor, chased Peter through a maze. The writer made the rules herself and even illustrated them.

The list of manufactured merchandise was rapidly expanding: people loved Beatrix's characters, every child dreamed of his own plush Peter Rabbit in a felt coat. So the writer continued to make toys based on her books, not forgetting to write new ones in the meantime. Tea sets, puzzles, bookcases, slippers, stationery and again stuffed toys – Beatrix kept her eyes on the ball and often refused manufacturers if she was dissatisfied with the quality of the goods.

At the same time, she always listened to ideas from the outside. For example, in 1917, Mary Warne, wife of Frederick Warne, proposed some interesting changes to the 1904 board game that would diversify and simplify it for children. Beatrix liked the idea so much that two years later the game "Peter Rabbit Race" was released in a new version and the writer gave all the profits to Mary.

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Soon, the merchandise began to bring in almost as much profit as the books themselves, and Beatrix wrote less and less, giving her time and energy to the peaceful rural life that she had dreamed of since childhood. When the Warnes faced a threat of financial failure in 1917, they were saved by the income from the sale of toys and the support of Beatrix: in order to help, she published a book "Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes" and a line of themed merchandise.

Beatrix Potter died of pneumonia on December 22, 1943, transferring the copyright to her works to the Warnes. Another major publisher, Penguin Random House, which to this day republishes Beatrix’s magical books, currently owns the copyright. "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" has sold over 45 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 35 languages. The merch based on it brings the company almost 5 million a year.

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Of course, Beatrix Potter was not the only writer whose books have acquired their own souvenirs. Back in 1744, toys appeared based on the books of John Newbery, one of the first publishers of children's literature. B Beatrix's contemporary, Lyman Frank Baum, not only released souvenirs, but also staged theatrical performances based on his book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz".

However, merchandise is primarily a licensed product, and in this regard, Potter's approach is unique. She was able not only to create a successful line of products that the whole world fell in love with, but also to protect her copyrights, organize patents and, in fact, create her own brand. Whatever the writer undertook resonated with the audience, because Beatrix never forgot for whom she was doing it. For children who loved her books.

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