Legends of Hello Kitty

This replica of the first-ever Hello Kitty product, a 1975 coin purse, will be on view at JANM as part of Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty.
This replica of the first-ever Hello Kitty product, a 1975 coin purse, will be on view at JANM as part of Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty.

There is more to Hello Kitty than cute stuff. An entire body of lore lies behind the origins and development of this global phenomenon and her parent company, Sanrio. These stories are familiar to devoted Sanrio enthusiasts, but if you are a relative newcomer to this world, read on to learn some fascinating, and surprising, tidbits.

1) Sanrio Started Out as a Silk Manufacturer
The globally known maker of cute products began its life as Yamanashi Silk Center Co., Ltd., founded in 1960 by Shintaro Tsuji. Its direction began to change due to the popularity of a simple rubber beach sandal decorated with a flower. Tsuji realized that the addition of a decorative element like a flower or strawberry could transform a simple dry good into a value-added, branded product. Sanrio—whose pleasant-sounding name was inspired by the Spanish words for “pure river”—was born soon thereafter.

In honor of Sanrio’s origins, Shibori Girl Glennis Dolce will lead a one-day, Hello Kitty-themed silk-dyeing workshop at JANM on Saturday, December 6.

2) The First Hello Kitty Product Sits in a Protective Vault in Japan
The Hello Kitty character first appeared on a small, clear vinyl coin purse in 1975. The purse was priced at less than a dollar. Although many replicas have been made over the years—including a recent makeup bag by Sephora that pays homage to the iconic piece—only one of the original purses is known to exist, and it is kept in a secure vault at Sanrio’s headquarters in Japan.

This fall, Hello Kitty fans will be able to view the legendary coin purse when Sanrio flies it in for display at the first-ever official Hello Kitty Con, taking place at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA October 30 through November 2. In addition, a replica of the original purse (pictured above) is included in JANM’s Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty exhibition.

3) How Sanrio Started Giving Out Small Gifts with Purchases
During a busy holiday season in 1975, a Sanrio store clerk was wrapping a purchase for a customer when she discovered that she was out of bows. Quickly improvising, she decided to use a small bell that she picked off the store’s Christmas tree. The customer was so delighted with this little bonus that he left the store with a big smile on his face. Happy with this result, the clerk started adding bells to all wrapped gifts. When Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji heard about this, he made it the company’s policy to give out a small gift with every store purchase.

You can learn more about Sanrio’s “Small Gift, Big Smile” philosophy at a panel discussion with Sanrio representatives on Thursday evening, November 20.

Enjoyed these stories? More fun discoveries are coming your way beginning October 11, when JANM opens Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty. View 40 years of Hello Kitty artifacts, 40 contemporary artworks inspired by Hello Kitty, Hello Kitty outfits worn by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, and much more. Timed entry tickets are available now!

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