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Fri, Mar 01, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Celebrating the founder of merchandising

PIONEER When British author Beatrix Potter first sewed together a Peter Rabbit toy to be sold with her books, she established a business model now copied globally


Once upon a time there was a kind lady who had a very good idea. She wrote a letter to a young boy about her rabbit called Peter. Then she turned the story into a book about a naughty rabbit called Peter and a cross gardener.

And when she discovered that everyone loved the book she sewed together a Peter Rabbit toy and let other people give her money so that they could make Peter Rabbit things too. And in the end she had lots and lots of money because of this and because of all the other stories she wrote. Her name was Beatrix Potter and she invented merchandising.

This year sees the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter's first book, and with it, the author's pioneering work in the merchandising field which has become a huge global cash machine for those who followed including the owners of Mickey Mouse, Superman, Winnie The Pooh and, latterly, the other Potter, Harry.

Beatrix Potter was by nature a benefactor -- she readily wrote her illustrated and entertaining letters to friends and fans, and bequeathed her extensive land and property in England's Lake District to the British nation. But she was also an astute businesswoman and she quickly spotted Peter Rabbit's potential, other than in book form.

"There is a run on toys copied from pictures," she observed to Norman Warne, the youngest of three brothers whose publishing company, Frederick Warne, introduced Peter Rabbit to the world. "I am cutting out calico patterns of Peter," she said.

"I have not got it quite right yet, but the expression is going to be lovely; especially the whiskers." She had made the whiskers out of the bristles of a brush. In 1903 she patented her Peter Rabbit doll, making the naughty bunny in his blue, button-up coat, the world's oldest licensed character.

The tale of Beatrix Potter

* The British author wrote her first book, `The Tale of Peter Rabbit,' one hundred yeats ago this year.

* In 1903, a doll of the rabbit became the first licensed character in the world.

* She approved designs for a board game, slippers and china tea sets.

* Books and licensed products are now on sale in 110 countries.

* The licensing company turns over US$500 million a year.

Source: The Observer

Two years after the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in 1904, the elite soft-toy company Steiff bought from Beatrix Potter the right to make a Peter Rabbit of their own. The result, a dark, weasly-faced impersonation, was a disappointment to his creator, who saw the version on sale at Harrods. From now on she kept close control over Peter Rabbit products.

She approved designs for a board game, slippers, handkerchiefs and china tea sets by china makers Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. She died in 1943 but lived to see the ultimate compliment -- pirate Peter Rabbit products, such as a 1920s pink plastic doll of unrivaled ugliness.

But the Peter Rabbit story was still fundamentally a literary one: the little books were steadily being translated and published abroad.

After the US edition in 1904 came the Dutch copies, a pirated French edition, and eventually versions in Latin and Japanese. The bargain price -- in the US they sold for US$0.10 -- was at the insistence of the author, who, for all her business acumen would have been astonished to find the earliest copies selling today at auction for thousands of dollars.

"Some books are being bought and sold like a commodity," says Philip Errington, specialist in books for auctioneers Sotheby's.

"Beatrix Potter books tend to be bought by people who really want them and love them. They don't come on the market very often."

As a merchandising venture, the Peter Rabbit story may not have been as sophisticated as today's character campaigns, but from its modest, tabletop beginnings it has grown into a formidable business.

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