National Winnie the Pooh Day is Jan. 18 — let's take a look back at the iconic character

By Alex Heigl
Updated January 18, 2021 10:35 AM
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THE NEW ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH, Winnie the Pooh, Rabbit, 1990. (c)Walt Disney Co. Courtesy: E
Everett
| Credit: Everett

A.A. Milne's beloved children's creation Winnie the Pooh is celebrated every year on Jan. 18, Milne's birthday.

The children's icon got its start via a black bear named Winnie (apparently the former mascot of the Winnipeg regiment of the Canadian army, hence the name, according to the New York Public Library) living at the London Zoo during World War I. Milne's coincidentally named son, Christopher Robin, visited the animal often and named his own stuffed bear after the real Winnie — and, oddly enough, a swan named Pooh.

Original Winnie-the-Pooh Illustrations To Be Auctioned At Sotheby's
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Milne, who served in the front lines of WWI at the Battle of the Somme and was part of a secret British propaganda unit called MI7b, began writing the books in 1926 as Winnie-the-Pooh (the hyphen was dropped when Disney bought the rights to the character in the 1960s) with illustrations from E.H. Shepard.

Milne had actually studied mathematics at Cambridge, but turned his focus to writing while still at school, crafting humor pieces for Punch magazine. (Prior to his success with Winnie, he was also a successful playwright and authored a detective novel.) He eventually grew unhappy with being pegged solely as a children's writer, despite his continued output of plays and novels in the '30s and '40s.

THE NEW ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH, Winnie the Pooh, 1988, (c) Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Colle
Credit: Everett

Pooh didn't come to Disney directly from Milne: The author sold the American and Canadian merchandising rights to the character to producer and literary agent Stephen Slesinger (who worked with Western authors Zane Grey and became a prominent merchandiser of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan character as well), who released a Pooh plush toy with a red T-shirt in 1932. When Slesinger's widow in turn sold the character's rights to Disney in 1961, they continued with the design.

Fictional Characters Winnie The Pooh
Credit: George Skadding/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Slesinger also took some considerable liberties with the design of the toys. The original toys were given to Christopher Robin between 1920 and 1928 (Pooh was purchased at Harrods in London and originally named Edward, according to the NYPL) — they were also toys for the family dog, which contributes to their haggard appearance. Sadly, Roo was lost in an apple orchard some time in the 1930s. The toys are displayed at the New York Public Library's Children Center in Manhattan — in 2015, they underwent an extensive restoration at the Textile Conservation Workshop for repairs to their fabric patches and plush, reports Forbes.

Winnie The Pooh Receives A Star On Hollywood Walk of Fame
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Pooh starred in innumerable animated shorts and feature films both pre- and post-Disney ownership. If Pooh's distinctive voice in the early animated shorts sounds familiar to you, it should: Sterling Holloway, the character's voice in Disney featurettes until 1977, also was the voice of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and Sleepy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The English novelist Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) author of the story Winnie the Pooh, here with his son Christopher Robin Milner (1920-1996), photo by Howard Coster, 1926 - English novelist Alan Alexander Milne who wrote the story of Winnie the Pooh
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On the literary side, Pooh's books have been translated into 29 languages, and the 1958 Latin translation, Winnie Ille Pu, spent 20-plus weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, the only book in Latin ever to do so, according to the Times.

One of the Pooh's more interesting forays in literature has been The Tao of Pooh, which was written by Benjamin Hoff as a primer on Taoism for Westerners. Hoff wrote the book on nights and weekends while working as a tree pruner at a Japanese botanical garden. It was published in 1982 and was on the New York Times Best Seller list for 49 weeks; it remains required reading in some college courses.

NEW ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Christopher Robin, Piglet, Winnie the Pooh, T
Credit: Everett

Pooh's popularity across all realms of media remains undiminished: A 2004 Forbes article described him as the second-highest-earning fictional character ever created, supplanted only by Mickey Mouse. Not bad for a confused bear.