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The History of Merch: Who Invented Merchandise?

By Miriam Diiren

Merchandise captivates the world. It appears in all sorts of settings, from sports games to music concerts, even in supermarkets too. But where did merchandise come from? Who invented merchandise? Putting your face or brand onto a product and selling it? We’re going to uncover the history of merch and explore the amazing individuals who pioneered the art of merchandise.


The founders of merch: 18th – 19th Century


You may be familiar with the ‘founding father of merchandise’ Jasper Freemont Meek. He created the first branded tote bag for a shoe shop in 1878. However, we can argue that the idea of merchandise was born even earlier. Take George Washington for example — he was a surprising contributor to the world of merchandise! While he may be renowned for his leadership during the American Revolution and his role as the first President of the United States, Washington also had a knack for utilising merchandise to promote his image and ideals. 

In the late 18th century, Washington recognised the power of symbols and memorabilia to unite a young nation. He authorised the production of items such as commemorative coins, medallions, and engravings featuring his likeness, which were distributed widely to inspire patriotism and strengthen the sense of national identity. Washington’s strategic use of merchandise helped establish him as an iconic figure and created a lasting legacy that continues to resonate to this day. This has now become known as election campaign promotional products.


Photo credit to The Chronicle


In the history and evolution of merchandise, we explored the entrepreneurial spirit of Jasper Freemont Meek, who started a profitable merchandise business. Meek, a printer by trade, had a brilliant idea that would not only keep his earnings afloat but also revolutionise the concept of promotional products; printed tote bags to be precise. In 1878, Meek began producing sturdy canvas bags with local business’ trademarks and logos, including more political campaigns. These tote bags quickly became a sensation, as they served a practical purpose while also acting as walking billboards for various brands. Meek’s innovative approach to advertising not only captured the attention of consumers but also paved the way for the rise of promotional merchandise as a powerful marketing tool.


Artistic spin on merch: 20th Century


Raymond Molinier

Introducing the next merch contributor — Raymond Molinier, a visionary French artist and designer. In the early 1930s, Molinier single-handedly changed the game by introducing the concept of “merchandise” at the Paris Opera. With his innovative spirit, he transformed ordinary show programs into vibrant collectibles, complete with stunning illustrations and intricate designs. They became increasingly popular as Opera-goers finally had something tangible to cherish and take home with them after their unforgettable experience at the Opera.


Walt Disney

After World War II, the media and entertainment industry began to bloom. Movies were becoming more accessible and the advertising world was being fueled by determined “mad men” in New York. So now it’s time to talk about the man who turned childhood dreams into reality — Walt Disney. As the creator of Mickey Mouse and the beloved Disney universe, Disney understood the power of imagination and the desire for fans to take a piece of that magic home, especially while many were still healing from the travesties of war. With Disneyland’s grand opening in 1955, the world witnessed the birth of an empire that offered everything from plush toys to princess dresses. To this day, Disney merchandise is one of the most purchased franchises in the world.


Photo credit to The Hollywood Reporter


George Lucas

Fast forward to the 1970s, a time when we ventured into the ‘Star Wars’ cinematic universe. George Lucas, the mastermind behind this epic saga, not only enchanted audiences with his cinematic brilliance but also revolutionised merchandise forever. Recognizing the immense potential of cinema fandom, Lucas struck a deal that allowed him to retain the rights to the merchandise associated with the franchise — this was known as Lucasfilm. Little did he know that this decision would catapult him into the merchandise hall of fame, with lightsabers, action figures, and clothing becoming beloved staples for fans worldwide. In 2012, Disney purchased Lucasfilm and George Lucas stepped away from his role. After that, Disney reincarnated the Star Wars world, they created another trilogy and many Disney+ series that have since become incredibly popular and created even more merchandise for the Star Wars Disney franchise merchandise.

Photo credit to Disney Star Wars Store


Celebrating the legends of merchandise


We might take merchandise for granted, although we may not realise it. Your go-to morning coffee mug might have Mickey Mouse on it, or your favourite pair of socks might have Yoda on them. Franchises and merchandise have become woven into our day-to-day lives. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the brilliant minds who brought our favourite characters and stories to life through merchandise. From Raymond Molinier to Walt Disney, and George Lucas too, these merchandise inventors tapped into our collective imagination and crafted a world where dreams can be held in the palm of our hands and taken home with us.

So, the next time you proudly display that action figure on your shelf or rock that fandom-inspired T-shirt, remember the legends behind merchandise. Like George Washington, who created the first promotional badge, and Jasper Freemont Meek, who produced the first branded tote bag (how many of them do you have in your cupboard now?). They’re the true heroes who brought branding, connection, and a touch of magic into our lives.


Summing up…


So if you’re looking to create long-lasting and appreciated merchandise that will be talked about in 100 years time, get in touch with us. If you’ve got a ground-breaking new merchandise idea, we can help you create it from scratch. On the other hand, if you need a classic piece of promotional products like tote bags, apparel or drink bottles, then we can help you produce some outstanding designs to take the market by storm.

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