I’m always curious about the origins of those things we hold dear. One of those “things” that has always puzzled me is the ‘teddy bear’. Where did our love for this small, stuffed, fuzzy animal toy come from? Why the bear? How did it get its name and how did it become the most popular, international cuddly toy ever sold? For collectors, a vintage teddy bear can be worth more than $2 million!! I have quite a few ‘teddies’ with which I would never dream of parting, but I doubt any of them have anything but a sentimental value.
Let’s start at the beginning and examine where the affection for stuffed animals as children’s toys came from. Surprisingly, these cuddly, fuzzy replicas of animals originated in ancient times from a form of taxidermy. Although the majority of animal skins were tanned and used for clothing, hunters have always taken great pride in preserving their kills. Over time, taxidermists, as they became known, began to develop their skills, from just tanning the skins, to keeping the entire animal as intact as possible. By the early 1800s, hunters began bringing their trophies to upholstery shops where a form of taxidermy took place, as upholsterers would actually sew up the animal skins and “stuff” them with rags and cotton. Exotic “stuffed animals” became a hugely popular attraction and grew into quite a successful commercial venture, from traveling road shows to museum collections. Not surprisingly, children became very attracted to these lifelike hunting trophies. Observant entrepreneurs realized they could create a business producing toy “stuffed animals” just for children, and production for these adorable creatures began.
In 1897 in Germany, Margarete Steiff, was using techniques that she had learned from the upholstery industry, and began a small business creating soft, plush animal toys. Richard, Margarete’s nephew, and a student at the School of Arts and Crafts in Stuttgart, was eager to help his aunt’s business and went looking for an idea for a new animal. An American circus was touring through their city and, among the many animals on display, were performing bears. Richard was fascinated by these lumbering creatures and, after the circus left, he began going to the zoo each day just to observe and sketch the bears.
Richard decided he would make a toy bear, but not just any stuffed bear, his would be jointed, similar to dolls and have the ability to stand up … and it would be made with fine mohair from goats. Richard came up with a prototype … code name “Steiff Bär 55 PB” (“Bär” is German for “bear”, 55 = the bear’s height in centimetres; P = Plusch, plush; and B = beweglich, moveable limbs).
This fuzzy, mohair bear with its jointed limbs and brown eyes debuted at the German toy fair in 1903 where a buyer for a U.S. toy company not only bought all 100 bears, he placed an order for 3,000 more. The next year, the Steiffs exhibited at the St. Louis World and sold 12,000 bears, receiving the Gold Medal, which was the highest honor at the event. The Steiff bears became so popular, other companies quickly began manufacturing their own versions of this adorable toy animal.
Now let’s move to Brooklyn, New York, at about the same time, where Morris and Rose Michtom emigrated from Russia and opened a little candy store. To attract more children to their candy shop, they began making soft, plush animal toys, which they strategically placed in their shop window.
Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was in Mississippi to settle a border dispute. While there, he was invited by the Governor and others to go on a hunting trip. Hours had passed and although the other hunters had been successful in killing an animal, President Roosevelt still hadn’t shot anything. His aides, after a long and exhausting chase with the hounds, cornered a young bear cub and tied it to a tree. They then invited the President to shoot it. As an avid hunter and outdoors man, the President couldn’t bring himself to shoot a defenseless little cub, saying it would be unsportsmanlike to kill a defenseless animal that way. He ordered it to be set free, “Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal.”
The incident generated national attention and was depicted in a popular political cartoon, titled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” by Clifford Berryman. Inspired by the cartoon, the Michtoms made a stuffed bear in honor of President Roosevelt. They used the bear in Berryman’s cartoon as a guide, and quickly worked out a pattern. On February 15, 1903, Morris put the stuffed animal in his shop window at 404 Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn with a copy of the cartoon and a handwritten notice saying ‘Teddy’s Bear‘.
Not only did someone immediately enter the store to buy the bear, but 12 other customers also wanted to buy it. The Michtoms didn’t want to offend the President by using his name without permission, so instead of selling “Teddy’s Bear” they mailed the bear to the White House and asked Roosevelt for the use of his name. The President replied telling them they were free to use his name if they wanted, but he doubted it would help with sales. He was wrong. Sales skyrocketed and because of the immense popularity of “Teddy’s Bear’s”, Roosevelt adopted it as their symbol in the 1904 election. The Michtom teddy bears were placed on display at every White House function.
The Michtoms ultimately closed their candy store ad went on to start one of the most successful toy companies in the world, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company manufactured not only teddy bears, but many other very familiar toys as well. You may have heard of the Betsy Wetsy doll, or Patti Playpal. Perhaps you had a Tammy, a Thumbelina or Crissy doll? Of course, everyone knows about the Rubik’s Cube.
So the world’s most beloved stuffed animal was, in fact, named in honor of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Who knew this adorable, little stuffed animal had such an interesting past? Now more than a century later, Steiff continues to make stuffed toy bears, with its vintage teddy bears prized by collectors everywhere, commanding outrageously high prices at auctions. Do you have one?