Walt Disney and a set of Seiberling Dwarfs appeared on the cover of Time magazine, December 27, 1937. The figurines are standing on a matted cel from the film that Walt Disney appears ready to sign.
In 1898 Frank Seiberling founded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, named in honor of Charles Goodyear, the man who invented vulcanized rubber in 1839.
Employees working out of the company's manufacturing plant, located about seven miles southwest of Akron, Ohio, produced bicycle tires, horseshoe pads, hot water bottles, household gadgets and poker chips. As with most American companies, the company was beset with problems with the onset of the Great Depression.
In 1933, Tom Casey, the company's Vice-President, happened to catch a showing of Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs at a local theater. According to a 1938 newspaper article, "Casey liked it. He went to see it again. After his third trip [to the theater] he went to California."
Casey's sole reason for his trip out west was to secure the rights to produce rubber figurines based on characters from the Three Little Pigs. After successfully negotiating a contract, (that saw the Studio retain five per cent of the wholesale receipts), Casey traveled to New York, where he "hired an Italian sculptor and set him to work modeling the Three Little Pigs. His models of the pigs were wonderful. They sold like hot cakes. So, the sculptor went on sculpting. And out came Mickey Mouse, the Big Bad Wolf and Donald Duck."
The process involved in making one figurine was time consuming. None of the work was automated. After the model was approved, steel forms of the image were cast. Sheets of rubber were hand placed in the form.
"Then the lid comes down, steam runs the temperature up to about 450 degrees, and a million pounds of pressure is applied. The rubber cooks...for 15 minutes. When it comes out and cools there is ragged rubber all around the edge...this has to be trimmed off by hand."
The figurines were then hand-painted, a process that took about 15 minutes for each doll. According to a 1934 Kay Kamen Disney merchandise catalog, "Color decorations are not injurious in any way, they are fast and will not crack or run in water."
Casey believed Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarf's was going to be a huge hit. So much so that his little factory pumped out 40,000 of the figurines in anticipation of the film's success. Seiberling Snow White figures appeared in the marketplace two months prior to the film's premiere. When sales stagnated, Casey ordered a halt in production.
When Walt Disney's first full-length animated feature went into general release in February 1938, Snow White mania swept the nation. Many Disney licensees, including Seiberling, were caught off-guard by the sudden and unexpected surge in demand for related merchandise.
"The 40,000 Snow White rubber dolls were all gone and orders by the thousands began pouring in. They worked full shifts, 24 hours a day, and steadily lost ground. At one time they were 125,000 dolls behind."
Besides the Three Pigs, Big Bad Wolf, Mickey, Donald and Snow White figurines, Seiberling also produced a Ferdinand the Bull and an Elmer Elephant doll. The release of Pinocchio saw the introduction of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Figaro, Cleo and a Pleasure Island donkey to the company's line of Disney toys. Prices ranged from 39 cents for a single doll, to $1.25 for a set.
Unfortunately, most of Seiberling's toys have fallen victim to oxidation, leaving collectors hard pressed to find examples in anything over very good condition. Luckily, boxes and related point of sale display items and advertisements have survived the elements of time.
Many of the images in this post are courtesy Hake's Americana & Collectibles.