Perhaps the strangest event at the laundry occurred in 1951, when the craze for Davy Crockett "coonskin caps" swept the country.

It was then that the old building at Bell and Western supplied the headgear for an unprecedented craze - the greatest media-fueled consumer buying spree yet seen in America.


     Davy Crockett enters the building
 

It all began, in 1954, during the days after December 15-22, when ABC aired a Disney program called "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter." This was the first of a three-part series, filmed for the company’s Disneyland anthology (Disneyland was divided into stories intended to fit four themes: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Frontierland).

By the time "Davy Crockett, Goes to Congress" was broadcast – on dates from January 13-31 in 1955 – Disney’s slice of Frontierland had set off a national craze.

The series’ final episode ("Davy Crockett, At the Alamo") aired the week of February 23-28, 1955. By then, "Crockett mania" had caught both Disney and the country by surprise. In one day, recalled the art director of Disney’s Character Merchandising Division, "we received 200 calls … it was so busy the phones finally had to be taken off the hook!"

Over the next three months, Disney’s Merchandising Division would be working 14-hour days, sometimes seven days a week – just to keep up with demands for Crockett merchandise. These demands, in fact, have never yet been equaled:

"In May, 1955, Time estimated that in the first three months of the craze alone, over $100,000,000 of Crockett merchandise was sold. When it was over, an astronomical $300,000,000 in Crockett commodities had been sold. Divide that by the thirty million consumers in the 5-14 age group, and that works out to $10 per kid.

The $300,000,000 (over $1.8 billion in 1996 dollars!!) was even more staggering when compared to other crazes of the period. The previous Hopalong Cassidy craze in 1950 and 1951, did a grand total of only about $1,000,000 in merchandise sales a year. The Zorro craze created by Disney’s 1958-1959 TV series of the same name, did slightly over $20,000,000 in merchandise sales."

The Crockett craze was "the greatest merchandising sweep for any national craze, before or after." Even in 1990, well after ‘Star Wars,’ Entertainment Weekly still marveled at its breadth – in a piece they headlined "The Biggest, Shortest Fad."

Crockett mania was, by its nature, "rich in symbols," foremost among which was the ubiquitous coonskin cap. The caps provided kids with a cornerstone of kinship to "Davy." "Raccoon tails, which before the craze were selling for 25 a pound rose to $5 per pound by May 1955.

The price continued to rise as the demand increased and raccoon pelts became scarce. When raccoon pelts became virtually nonexistent, other animals were recruited."

The man who had those animals (or, at least, their pelts) was none other than J. B. Simpson. Within months of the Crockett craze, he devoted his Bell and Western building to outfitting America’s Davys. "Seattle’s Arctic Fur Company," reported Time Magazine, "which has been shrewdly buying up wolf pelts for years, is producing 5,000 ersatz coonskin hats daily." In some stores, the magazine noted, Davy Crockett garb accounted for 10% of all children’s wear.

By the summer of 1955, the coonskin cap was all-important. Its were spurred by Davy Crockett gear of every type:

"Stores in Los Angeles and Dallas have set up Crockett clubs, marked off special Davy Crockett sections where youngsters can find everything from a Davy Crockett peace pipe (98) to a complete Davy Crockett outfit with rifle, powder horn, cap, etc. ($7.98); a Davy Crockett guitar costs $4.98 extra. Denver’s May Co. advertises a Davy Crockett bath towel, with this pitch to mothers: ‘Your bathtime struggles are over … They’ll run to use Davy Crockett towels.’"

As one Detroit retail buyer solemnly told Time, "Davy Crockett is bigger even than Mickey Mouse."

While Simpson ran his "coonskin factory" at Bell and Western, Crockett mania swept Seattle along with the rest of the nation. Allusions to Davy peppered every part of life.

IGA advertised the "Chance to Win a Davy Crockett Log Cabin Playhouse"; the pioneer’s real-life grandson (a 55 year old accountant in Dallas) told local paper readers how the craze had changed his life and, in Spokane, an Indian "known as Davy Crockett" was profiled in detail. Even in an article on suburbanites the subjects were classed as "kings of a new frontier" ("Brave Suburbanites Are Today’s Davy Crocketts").

Perhaps the most contentious local tie arose via an enterprising Ballard cinema owner, Hall Baetz. Baetz remembered seeing an Edward Small film about Crockett; it had been made five years earlier. Characterized in the local press as having "unusual success with a series of art pictures … and wholesome programs for children," Baetz claimed to be "working closely with PTA groups in scheduling children’s fare."

In fact, he located a print of Small’s ‘Davy Crockett, Indian Scout’ from a distributor based in Utah. He then shopped it round to a set of local theaters: The Burien, The American, The Ridgemont and the Sno-King Drive-In. All agreed, with The Ballard, to form "a temporary Davy Crockett circuit." It enabled them to cash in on the forthcoming Disney film, prints of which would not reach Seattle for weeks.

The Disney film, ‘Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier’ was composed of the earlier television episodes. Although it had been seen before, ‘King’ would still gross Disney $2.5 million.

The action of Baetz and his compatriots sparked a huge controversy in Seattle. Seattle Times critic Louis R. Guzzo discreetly avoided taking sides. But other theater folk, like William H. Thedford (president of Evergreen Theaters), and Fred Danz (executive vice president of Sterling Theaters) were emphatically damning. They called the five year-old film "ancient," and claimed screening it "hurts the exhibitor."

But Baetz, like Simpson, saw the bigger picture.



on to The Crockett craze: A milestone    




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