Teddy Bears

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Teddy Bears

Most adults carry fond, even significant memories of their own teddy bear, a possession integral to the childhood of all but the severely deprived in America and beyond. Although these days one can find stuffed toys representing every animal from an aardvark to a zebra, the figure of the bear remains the most popular choice, among children and adults alike. By the latter part of the twentieth century, teddy bears had become something of an industry in the United States and Europe.

Both the United States and Germany lay claim to the invention of the teddy bear, each for good reasons. In fact, however, the teddy bear seems to be the product of a remarkable historical coincidence occurring in 1902. One part of the story starts in Mississippi, where President Theodore Roosevelt was on a hunting trip. One of his companions captured a black bear cub, tied a rope around its neck, and brought it to Roosevelt to shoot, but the President, seeing no sport in killing an exhausted, bound, and defenseless animal, declined. A reporter traveling with the hunting party telegraphed the story to The Washington Post, which ran a front-page cartoon by Clifford Berryman the following day, showing Roosevelt refusing to shoot the bear cub with the caption "Drawing the line in Mississippi." In Brooklyn, New York, the cartoon was seen by one Morris Michtom, the owner of a small novelty store, who had been trying unsuccessfully to sell a few stuffed toy bears made by his wife, Rose. Inspired by Berryman's cartoon, Michtom wrote to the White House, received permission to use the presidential name, and put the toys in his shop window with a sign reading, "Teddy's bears." The bears sold quickly, and the demand for more was so great that Michtom soon founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Corporation and put "Teddy's bears" into mass production.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Germany, Richard Steiff was also in the grip of a big idea. While watching some trained bears performing in a circus, Steiff had the thought that a toy bear standing upright with jointed arms and legs might be a marketable commodity. He made some drawings of his conception and took them to his aunt, Margarete Steiff, a well-known toy and doll maker. She designed a stuffed bear based on her nephew's ideas, and exhibited them at the 1903 Leipzig Toy Fair. European stores initially expressed no interest in the new toys, but an American buyer was enthusiastic and ordered several thousand for export to the United States. Consequently, the teddy bear may be said to have two birthdays, although the name is clearly owed to its American maker and the president who inspired it.

Today, teddy bears are big business; there are an estimated 2.5 million collectors in the United States alone. So significant has this "bear market" become, the industry now distinguishes between two kinds of teddy bears: toys and collectibles. Toy bears are distinguished by their soft stuffing, designed to make them "huggable," while collectible teddys are characterized by jointed arms and legs, firm stuffing, and a relatively unyielding exterior. Many experts regard Gund, Inc. as the premier maker of cuddly toy bears, but to collectors, Steiff still reigns supreme, with antique Steiff bears sometimes fetching in excess of $10,000 at auctions.

The popularity of the teddy bear soon spread beyond the United States to Britain and elsewhere, and some teddys are based on characters in universally loved children's stories by English writers. Winnie the Pooh, the honey-loving bear created by A. A. Milne in 1926, has been a perennial favorite, as has Paddington Bear, who first appeared in the 1950s storybook A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond and Peggy Fortnum. A stuffed Smokey the Bear has been around for decades to remind bear lovers that "Only you can prevent forest fires." Teddy bears have also been based on human characters, both real and fictional, several with movie connotations. Thus, we have had such creations as "Humphrey Beargart," "Theda Beara," and the macho "Rambear."

Any popular collectible tends to spawn enterprises designed to feed it, and teddy bear collecting is no exception. There are mail-order catalogs devoted to bears and other bear products (such as T-shirts and posters), magazines for the teddy bear collector, bear calendars, teddy bear conventions, and innumerable internet sites devoted to commerce in stuffed bears.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Bull, Peter. The Teddy Bear Book. New York, Random House, 1970.

Severin, Gustav. Teddy Bear: A Loving History of the Classic Childhood Companion. Philadelphia, Courage Books, 1995.

Waring, Philippa. In Praise of Teddy Bears. London, Souvenir Press, 1997.