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Sunday, 17 December 2017

The first modern blockbuster IP merchandising campaign? Disney, Davy Crockett and the coonskin cap

It is holiday season, and this Kat recalls his earliest memory of craving a holiday gift. It was the mid-1950’s, America was awash with Davy Crockett mania, and all this young Kat wanted was a coonskin cap, just like Davy wore. His wish was not granted (the Kat parents showed both wisdom and fortitude), and it was only much later that this Kat came to realize the genius that stood behind Disney’s marketing of the Davy Crockett story. With less than 10 shopping days to Christmas, it is worth taking a Kat’s eye retrospective of what may have been the first big-time modern IP merchandising campaign.

David ("Davy") Crockett (1786-1836) grew up in the state of Tennessee, where he gained some notoriety for hunting exploits and his storytelling. He entered politics, elected first to the Tennessee state legislature, and later to the U.S. Congress. A narrow election loss in 1835 led him to travel to what is now the State of Texas (then known as the Mexican state of Tejas). Once there, he took part in the Texas Revolution and he died at the legendary Battle of the Alamo (the remnants of which are now located in the city of San Antonio, Texas). There was little in his story as a public figure that merited enduring historical fame, although he seems to have become a minor cultural figure in the 19th century via stage plays and almanac entries, and he was always identified with the Battle of the Alamo. But in the 1950’s, Disney took the tale of Davy Crockett to a whole new level.

As the story goes, the background to Crockett-mania was Disney’s aspiration to finance the building of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. One step in doing so was to do a series about Davy Crockett. In Disney’s words—" “It’s time to get acquainted, or renew acquaintance with, the robust, cheerful, energetic and representative folk heroes. Who better than Davy?” What followed was a television series consisting of five, one-hour long episodes (described as “insanely popular” at the time, reportedly attracting 12 million viewers) broadcast over the period from December 1954 to December 1955, a full-length movie in color— “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”, plus a widely successful theme song— “The Ballad of Davy Crockett." The first stanza of the Tennessee Ernie Ford version of the song, which we could all sing in its entirely by heart, goes like this (see here for the full lyrics):
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee

Greenest state in the land of the free

Raised in the woods so he knew ev'ry tree

Kilt him a b'ar [Merpel notes that is a “bear”] when he was only three

Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier
This three-prong attack—television, movie and a successful song-- was an aggressive attempt by Disney to exploit various avenues of media distribution for the story of Davy Crockett, focusing on a single character, whose modest exploits were embellished and packaged for 20th century consumption. Modern commercial television was less than a decade old and Disney was still experimenting with the best ways to exploit it. Only the Mickey Mouse franchise was comparable, with a three-decade history of movies and the launch of The Mickey Mouse Club television program in that same year (1955).

But it was the craze over the coonskin cap that truly distinguished the Crockett merchandising campaign. The headgear, historically made of racoon fur, had become popular in 19th century frontier times. The pioneers, especially those who had settled in the Mississippi Valley, were attracted to the racoon hat being worn, apparently for spiritual reasons, by Native Americans in that region; the pioneers soon adopted this fashion. The hat went on to become a defining symbol of the American pioneer’s free spirit at its best. But later in the 19th century, the coonskin cap lost its allure and dropped out of fashion, even being identified by some with rural “bumpkins”. With more than a whiff of condescension, a railroad tycoon, in giving testimony in 1886 before a U.S. Senate committee, dismissively said (see link below to article by Zachary Crockett)—
"The class of men to whom I allude as ‘coonskin cap fellows’ are worth but very little to merchants. I do not include in the ‘coonskin cap’ [category] the larger, more respectable, middle class all over the country. These [coonskin cap] fellows, who number in the hundreds of thousands, are worth very little to anyone.”
By the early 1900’s, the coonskin cap had become at a best a trivial piece of frontier nostalgia. And then came Disney, who made it the centerpiece of Disney’s merchandising efforts regarding the Davy Crockett franchise. This Kat could not find out how Disney came to adopt the coonskin cap (there is scant evidence that Crockett ever wore such a hat), but there is no doubt of its commercial success. In the words of The York Times— “Children wore coonskin caps to school and wore them to bed.” As well, there were Crockett frontier costumes, toy muskets, cap pistols, powder horns, color slide sets, rings, frontier bags, bill folds, T-shirts, trading cards, games, puzzles, comic books, even Crockett bubble gum, cookies and sundaes.

For the first three years after launch, 5,000 coonskin caps were being sold each day (bringing with it a brisk market for counterfeits). The cost of racoon fur jumped from 25 cents to $8 per pound, until supply became insufficient and ersatz furs were being used. By the end of the 1950’s, it is estimated that over $300 million dollars (equal to over $2.5 billion dollars today) of Crockett merchandise had been sold, equal to $10 for each child between the ages of 5-14. While hardly in favor today, 15,000 coonskin caps (at a price of $12.99) are still being sold yearly at the Alamo gift shop in Texas.

For Kat readers who think that the Crockett craze was solely a Yankee affair, consider that Disney heavily marketed the movie in the UK in 1955 in advance of its initial 1956 screening here. The song was a huge hit in the U.K as well as in France. But it was not only the movie and theme song that crossed the Atlantic pond. By chance, while waiting at a bus stop earlier in the week, this Kat was telling an acquaintance, who had grown up in south London, about his interest in the Crockett story. This friend recalled that, as a child during that time, he was the envy of his friends, being the only one sporting a coonskin cap.

From the vantage of time, it still seems remarkable how a minor cultural figure from 19th century American history was transformed into a 20th century entertainment icon, and how a piece of 19th century headwear emanating from the traditions of Native Americans served as the foundation for perhaps the first modern instance of IP merchandising hysteria (and how historical memory can be recreated and reworked). What there is to learn generally about IP merchandising, other than to acknowledge that Disney seems to have a special touch, this Kat leaves to Kat readers. (In particular, though, one wonders how central was Fess Parker, the actor who played Davy Crockett, and who was forever identified in the public mind with the coonskin cap.) In the meantime, all hats off (of the coonskin type) to Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.”

For more on Crockett and the coonskin cap, see here by Zachary Crocket (perhaps a descendant?).

Picture on top right,coonskin cap worn by actor Fess Parker, "The saga of Davy Crockett's coonskip cap", by Dwight Blocker Bowers, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, here.

By Neil Wilkof


Ron said...

Davy Crockett does not seem to have been deliberately chosen for stardom. The Book "The Art Of Disney" (Christopher Finch, ISBN 0-86124-491-5) quotes Bill Walsh, the ABC TV series' producer, as saying:

We were planning to do a series on American folk heroes - like Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, and Big Foot Wallace- and the first one we picked out, by dumb luck, was Davy Crockett. At that time he was considered just one more frontiersman. We shot it down in Tennessee and when we got the film back to the Studio, we found that we didn't have quite enough footage for three sixty-minute shows. So Walt said 'Why don't you take some drawings and stick them all together and give an idea of what the show's going to be about?' So we put the drawings together, sketches of Davy's life, and Walt said 'Well, that looks kind of dull. Maybe we can get a song to go with them' ". The song was, of course, "The Ballard of Davy Crockett." which - like the television episodes themselves - enjoyed enormous success.

It is also mentioned that Walt Disney was alone in retaining the TV rights to his stock of films: all the other studios, faced with falling attendances in the TV era, had by circa 1950 sold their TV screening rights to the TV companies. To fund his Disneyland project, Walt went into partnership with ABC and firstly produced the "Disneyland" series of programmes for them in 1954.

I was a child in the 1950's and well remember seeing both the "Disneyland" and "Davey Crockett" television series on the BBC, as well as the "Crockett-mania" of the 1950's. My neighbour's son's name was "David" and his family promptly gave him the nickname "Crockett" or "Crock".

Anonymous said...

it still seems remarkable how a minor cultural figure from 19th century American history was transformed into a 20th century entertainment icon

It's even more remarkable when you consider the rest of the song.

4th stanza of the Bill Hayes version:

Andy Jackson is our gen'ral's name
his reg'lar soldiers we'll put to shame
Them redskin varmints us Volunteers'll tame
'cause we got the guns with the sure-fire aim
Davy, Davy Crockett, the champion of us all!

Trumpistan did not pop out of nowhere...

Amalyah Keshet said...

I had one of these! Now I do feel a part of cultural history ...if, perhaps, a bit old, or a classic child victim of mid-twentieth-century merchandising.
Amalyah Keshet

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