It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther had on late 18th-century Europe. Within a few years of its publication, it had become an international phenomenon, with everyone from novelists to Chinese porcelain manufacturers eager to capitalize on the novel’s success.
On the literary front, authors began offering their own versions of Goethe’s story. In 1775, only one year after the work’s publication, a German author published a version of the narrative told from Charlotte’s perspective; a decade later, an English writer published a similar version, titled Letters of Charlotte during her Connexion with Werther. Another tactic was to offer readers a less sorrowful version of Goethe’s great tragedy. The German critic Friedrich Nicolai, for instance, wrote a work titled The Joys of Young Werther, which ends with Albert allowing Charlotte to marry Werther and the two young lovers living happily ever after.
On the mercantile front, artisans were all too ready to give consumers the Werther paraphernalia they so eagerly desired. Women wore a perfume called “Eau de Werther,” and men dressed in a recognizable “Werther” costume that included a blue coat and yellow waistcoat. In China, teacups intended for sale in the West were manufactured with Werther’s image. And in England, a certain Mrs. Salmon’s Royal Historical Wax-Work (i.e., a wax museum) featured a tableau of Werther’s death scene.
Not everyone embraced Goethe’s novel, however. Clerics railed against the book’s extra-marital love affair and its final death by suicide—which was both a sin and, as news of copycat suicides spread, a concern for public safety. In 1778, for instance, a young German woman drowned herself with a copy of the novel in her pocket. In an effort to stave off such rash acts, the city of Leipzig banned the book entirely. Yet no matter how clerics and lawmakers tried to stem the tide of this Werther-mania, the book proved to be unstoppable. By the early 19th century, The Sorrows of Young Werther counted among its admirers both Napoleon Bonaparte and (as Mary Shelley took pains to specify in her novel) Frankenstein’s monster.
Branded merchandise is still common today. Can you think of any toys, clothes, or other objects sold in conjunction with a movie, video game, book, or television show?