Essay: Beatrix Potter- The author who invented character merchandising
On the 157th birth anniversary of the author today, a look at the enduring appeal of her books and at her genius for marketing her work
I was browsing through the many charity shops in Epsom when I chanced upon a three-piece Peter Rabbit dinnerware set ideal for nursery-age children. There were no kittens in pinafores or toads in dinner jackets on this tableware; instead, Peter Rabbit, resplendent in a blue jacket with brass buttons, grabbed the spotlight.
Peter Rabbit took me back way into the past, to a time when I was a child and was gifted an illustrated version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Potter’s most beloved story. At first, the colourful drawings enthralled me; later, I loved to read about Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter, who “lived with their Mother in a sandbank, underneath the root of a very big fir tree”.
One of the best-selling children’s books of all time, Potter’s story centres on the mischievous bunny, whose wilfulness lands him in trouble. The tale, written to combine adventure and humour in a manner that appeals to younger readers, also offers a moral lesson.
But the one thing that sets the story apart happens at the beginning of the book.
“Now my dears,” said old Mrs Rabbit one morning, “You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.”
The fact that the beginning of the book for children involved a death was unthinkable – till then.
It didn’t hamper the reception the book got. Children related to and continue to relate to the character of Peter Rabbit because of the book’s focus on foundational experiences that construct identity.
Mrs Rabbit steps out, after admonishing her three biddable girls and disobedient boy. “Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.” That gets Peter started on an adventure that he – and all children reading his tale – enjoy (it ends well, after all!). In The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, Kate Mullins writes: “Peter’s development has a kind of bildungsroman quality within the genre of children’s literature. [He] determines his identity by breaking boundaries, which appear in the form of his mother’s rules, and also literally in the shape of the many physical barriers that are presented in both tales: the gate, the net, the sieve, the door, and, most obviously, walls.”
I learnt much later that Potter hadn’t written the book as a story, per se. She conceived her tale on September 4, 1893, in an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her friend and former governess, Annie Moore. Noel, recovering from a bout of scarlet fever, was in dire need of amusement and Potter sent off a letter with a story based on Peter Piper, her pet rabbit. “I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits, whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter… .”
She later had the idea of turning this story into a book. When her proposal was rejected by six publishers, she took a decision that many authors struggle with even today: to self-publish. An edition of 250 copies was issued in December 1901; the book was so popular that 200 more copies were issued in February 1902.
The success caught the attention of Frederick Warne & Company, which had initially rejected the book. The publisher agreed to take it up, if only Potter provided colour illustrations (the original version had 42 black-and-white illustrations). A commercial edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in October 1902, and sold 50,000 copies in over a year. It has never been out of print since.
“The public must be fond of rabbits!” Potter wrote to Norman Warne, the son of her editor Frederick, and the man she got engaged to later. “What an appalling quantity of Peter.”
On why the book met with such adoration, she wrote in 1905: “It is much more satisfactory to address a real live child; I often think that that was the secret of the success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child — not made to order.”
The Tale of Peter Rabbit went on to sell more than 45 million copies worldwide in 35 languages.
The success marked the start of a long and successful relationship in which the publisher and author released two storybooks a year. In the next 20 years, there were as many as 22 new books, including The Tailor of Gloucester (1903), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904).
It wasn’t quite the life that Potter, born into an upper-middle-class household on July 28, 1866, would have thought she would live. Her paternal grandfather, Edmund Potter, ran the largest calico printing company in England and co-founded the Manchester School of Design. This allowed the family a luxurious lifestyle; her brother, Bertram, went to boarding school, but she was educated by governesses.
Potter grew up isolated from other children and in the company of her many pets. She spent much of her childhood studying nature; focused on drawing and painting on the family estates. Regular family holidays in Scotland and the Lake District led to a deep love of landscape, flora and fauna, which can be clearly seen in her works. She was particularly interested in mushrooms and toadstools, and from the late 1880s to the end of the century drew hundreds of finely detailed drawings of fungi.
“I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever, and settles on the queerest things,” she wrote in her journal.
Despite the popularity that Peter Rabbit enjoyed, Potter’s publisher failed to register the American copyright and numerous unauthorised copies flooded the market. Apart from a loss of revenue, this led to Peter Rabbit becoming part of other writer’s stories such as Peter Rabbit and His Ma and Peter Rabbit and Jimmy Chipmunk.
The author grew wiser after that and started strategising on how to grow her work. The makings of an entrepreneur were evident when barely a year after her first book met with success, she started sewing a Peter Rabbit doll.
“I have not got it right yet, but the expression is going to be lovely; especially the whiskers — (pulled out of a brush!),” she wrote to Warne.
The author had seen that iconic British department store Harrods was selling dolls based on Sunny Jim, an advertising character, and noted that “there is a run on toys copied from pictures”. A squirrel doll named “Nutkin” had popped up in a shop after The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was published, and Potter knew that if she didn’t make the dolls, someone else would.
Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life In Nature, writes that the author was an incredibly astute businesswoman. “It’s not generally known how successful she was at it. My view is that she was a natural marketer. She came from a marketing family and mercantilism was in her blood.”
In December 1903, Potter patented the Peter Rabbit doll, an unusual move back then as it was one of the earliest patents on a literary character.
She then started work on other character merchandise, her “sideshows”. Her next idea was a board game in which Mr McGregor chases Peter Rabbit around a maze of squares. “I think this is a rather good game,” she wrote to Warne. “I have written the rules at some length, (to prevent arguments!)”
At a time when stodgy Victorian publishers thought that such commercialism was crass, Potter knew what she was doing. Over the years, she followed up with other “spin-off” merchandise, including painting books, board games, wallpaper, figurines, baby blankets and china tea sets. Her line of merchandise soon became as profitable as her books.
Potter is credited with inventing character merchandising, building a retail empire out of her “bunny book” that is worth more than $500 million today, and has helped numerous licensed characters, including Mickey Mouse, Superman, Captain America, and Harry Potter, that followed in Peter Rabbit’s small footsteps.
But she wasn’t the first writer to merchandise her work. Way back in 1744, dolls based on the books of John Newbery, the “father of children’s literature”, were seen in the market. However, Potter was the first one who did it in such a systematic way, securing patents and creating a legacy.
Rowena Godfrey, chairperson of the Beatrix Potter Society, writes that Potter was a perfectionist, which made all her work “so appealing and enduring”. “Her ideals have been followed ever since, and the quality of Potter merchandise is usually of a phenomenal standard.”
Her professional success seemed to set her up for personal happiness when she fell in love with Norman Warne, her editor and publisher’s son. He proposed to her in July 1905 but shockingly died of pernicious anaemia less than a month later. His untimely death devastated the author and she focused her energies on renovating Hill Top, a small farm in the village of Sawrey in Lake District, bought with book royalties.
This was a “turning point,” Lear writes in the biography Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, “a courageous assertion of personal freedom and emotional independence”.
In 1913, at the age of 47, she married a local lawyer named William Heelis, moving into his cottage. But she kept Hill Top for herself; it would be her place, a place where she could retreat – to garden, write and be alone. It might have seemed unthinkable at the time, but the author had a mind of her own.
Years later, she wrote about Hill Top: “It is in here I go to be quiet and still with myself. This is me, the deepest me, the part one has to be alone with.”
Potter went on to write more than 60 books, with the best known being her 23 children’s books; they have sold more than 250 million copies. In her later years, her diminishing eyesight made illustrating a problem. Her last book was Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922). The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, which was finally published in 1930, was written much earlier.
After World War I, Potter increased her focus on farming, sheep-breeding (she was a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep), and land conservation. Her enduring love of the natural world made her keen to preserve the landscape that had inspired her art. Her interest in land conservation is also said to have been inspired by her friendship with Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the three founders of UK’s National Trust.
Potter single-handedly created a brand out of her artistic work — an approach that has been followed worldwide ever since. However, the reason why she remains so successful and her work so loved is because she never lost sight of her customers – the children who loved her books and the adults they grew up into!
There was no way I was leaving without picking up the Beatrix Potter merchandise being sold for a song. Not even if my tween found them “childish”!
Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.