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Winnie-the-Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh

From learning videos to silk boxer shorts, from hatboxes to wristwatches, Winnie-the-Pooh has become as synonymous with Disney as Mickey Mouse. The Bear of Very Little Brain enjoyed a renaissance in popularity in the 1990s, and has parlayed his endearing befuddlement into a multi-million dollar franchise. "Pooh" and his companions from the Hundred Acre Wood are icons of a gentler, simpler childhood, a childhood without games like Mortal Kombat and Duke Nukem.

Alan Alexander Milne found inspiration for the Winnie-the-Pooh characters while watching his son Christopher Robin Milne at play; Pooh is based on a stuffed bear that Christopher received on his first birthday. Originally named Edward Bear, he was soon christened Winnie-the-Pooh. Winnie-the-Pooh is derived from Christopher's favorite bear in the London Zoo (named either Winnifred or Winnipeg, depending on the source) and a swan named Pooh. The stuffed menagerie grew to include a stuffed tiger, pig, and donkey. Milne introduced us to Pooh, Rabbit, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, and Roo in his 1924 collection of verses When We Were Very Young. Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926, followed by Now We Are Six in 1927, and The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. All four volumes were enchantingly illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard.

The Pooh stories enjoyed early success on both sides of the Atlantic (and have since been translated into over 25 languages). Winnie-the-Pooh became a favorite of Walt Disney's daughters, and he decided to bring Pooh to the American movie screens. Originally conceived as a feature length film, Disney felt that featurettes would slowly introduce the beloved bear and establish Pooh's recognition with American audiences. The first of the three featurettes, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree, was released in 1966. The three shorts were connected and reissued as The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, Disney's twenty-second feature length film, in 1977. It was re-released in 1996 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the original Pooh release. In 1997, Pooh's Grand Adventure resumed where the first film left off.

Thanks to renewed popularity based on video sales and rentals of the re-released movies, Disney found someone to rival Mickey Mouse as the face of Disney. Pooh and friends can be found on an animated cartoon series on ABC, interactive stories and learning games for computers, and learning videos, not to mention products such as pewter earrings and assorted neckties, which are targeted toward adult consumers.

Demand for Pooh merchandise stops just short of mania. When Disney stores released a limited edition Beanie Pooh on November 27, 1998, merchants found customers lining up as early as four o'clock in the morning in order to improve their chances of purchasing the bear. These limited edition bears were sold out nationally in a matter of hours. What makes Pooh marketing such a cultural phenomenon is Pooh's broad appeal to all ages. Specifically, marketing is directed at two of the largest segments of society: the Baby Boomers and their children, Generation X.

These two distinct markets have created a split in Pooh's persona. For the comparatively more affluent Boomers, there is a merchandising renaissance of the original Pooh as illustrated by Shepard. The Gund company markets stuffed versions modeled on the original ink and watercolor pictures found in the books; but these stuffed animals are not priced as items you would let a one-year-old drool on and play with. Shepard-inspired products also include decorative lamps, bookends, hatboxes, and charms—all valuable and collectible. These products are often found in larger, more upscale department stores, such as Dillards and Macy's. In contrast, Generation X is targeted with the "Disney-fied" Pooh. It is the round, yellow bear that is found on everything from watches and nightshirts to neckties and boxer shorts. While many such products are available only at Disney Stores, far more are readily available (and affordable) at stores like Target and Wal-Mart. These products include many items directed at children: books, puzzles, games, educational toys, and durable stuffed animals. Pooh's appearance, and significance, is in the eye of the beholder.

For both Gen Xers and their parents, Pooh represents a childhood sense of safety and comfort. Pooh muddles through a world inevitably made more complex than necessary by his good friends Rabbit and Owl. Eventually, the bear whose head is "stuffed with fluff" figures out a simpler, and often gentler, way of solving the various problems of the Hundred Acre Wood. Not only does Pooh's gentleness of spirit triumph, but his other endearing attribute is the special bond of love and constancy between himself and Christopher Robin. In a world of high-tech, high-speed, and high-violence, Pooh and company provide a haven from the breakneck lunacy of everyday life. Pooh wonders where he will find his next smackeral of honey, not whether his 401K will roll over. Pooh does not stab anyone's back while climbing the honey tree—honey trees are not corporate ladders. Pooh does not abandon Piglet who, as a Small and Timid Animal, fails to be an adequate partner for material success. In the Hundred Acre Wood, the concerns of daily life are no longer the priority issues; instead, love, loyalty, curiosity, generosity, companionship, and the celebration of the human spirit are Really Important Things.

—Julie L. Peterson

Further Reading:

Hoff, Benjamin. The Tao of Pooh. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1982.

——. The Te of Piglet. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1992.

Swan, T.B. A. A. Milne. New York, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971.

Thwaite, Ann. The Brilliant Career of Winnie-the-Pooh: The Definitive History of the Best Bear in the World. London, Methuen, 1992.

Williams, John Tyerman. Pooh and the Millennium: In Which the Bear of Very Little Brain Explores the Ancient Mysteries at the Turn of the Century. New York, Dutton, 1999.

——. Pooh and the Philosophers. London, Methuen, 1995.

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