Fascinating History of the Teddy Bear
Where did this charming toy come from?
The Teddy bear has been a beloved and enduring toy for children the world over for more than a century. They come in all shapes and sizes, from huge, overstuffed cuddly bears to mini-bears, small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. Nearly every American child has or has had a teddy bear at some point in their lives, and many people, child and adult alike, collect teddy bears as a hobby. But how did this lovable toy come to be? Where were the first teddy bears made, and what has made them so popular over the years?
The advent of the teddy bear as a popular toy begins with a confluence of events on opposite sides of the Atlantic in the year 1902. At this time, two unrelated stories combined to give birth the the popular teddy bears that we know and love today. To see how these events came together, let us first go back to Germany in the mid-nineteenth century.
In July of 1847, Margarete Steiff was born in the town of Giengen, Germany, near the city of Ulm. When Margarete was a toddler, she was stricken with polio which left her unable to walk and with limited use of her right arm. Nevertheless, the determined Margarete went to school and worked hard at her studies. Despite her lame arm, she also learned to sew, like her sisters, who later opened a dress shop. With her schooling completed, Margarete began to work in the shop.
As it turned out, Margarete Steiff was quite a talented seamstress, and branched off with her own clothing shop in 1877. She did so well, she was able to hire several seamstresses, and designed and made clothing and household articles. One of these household articles was a pincushion, made in the shape of a little elephant. Her elephant pincushions did so well, that she began to make other pin cushions in the shapes of various animals, and finally began to market them as toys in 1890.
This brings us to 1902, when Margarete fashioned her first jointed bear for sale as a children's toy, called Bear 55 PB. She used a soft mohair plush for the material, which made the little bears extra appealing, The cuddly bears did well in Germany, but it took the events of November 1902 in Mississippi to ultimately bring the Steiff bears to fame in the United States.
Teddy Roosevelt and the Bear
At that time, President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was grappling with a border dispute between Mississippi and Louisiana. While in Mississippi, Roosevelt, an avid hunter, went on a bear hunt. Apparently, some of his fellow hunters cornered a large black bear, who killed one of their hunting dogs. The hunters were able to wound the bear and tied it to a tree, waiting for the President to meet up with them. They offered to let him kill the bear, but Roosevelt thought that would be unsportsmanlike, and admonished his friends to kill the bear and put it out of its misery.
Shortly after this event, a political cartoonist, Clifford K. Berryman, published an editorial cartoon depicting the event. The cartoon was called "Drawing the Line in Mississippi", and it illustrated both the border line dispute and the bear event, with the bear drawn as a fierce and menacing beast. Later, Berryman, who continued to draw Roosevelt with the bear, began to draw the bear as a smaller, cuter animal, and his cartoons were well recognized in the United States.
The Teddy Bear is Born
Within the year, a man named Morris Mitchum, proprietor of a little novelty store in Brooklyn, NY produced with his wife a prototype toy bear that they meant to market in their store. (This bear was plush outside, but apparently filled with sawdust and rather hard, unlike the softer stuffed bear that would later become so popular.) Familiar with the Roosevelt bear cartoons, Mitchum sent the bear to the President and requested permission to marked it as a "Teddy Bear", in honor of the now famous event in Mississippi. Roosevelt approved, and Mitchum began to manufacture the first teddy bears in the United States.
So, how does this meld into the story of Margarete Steiff and her stuffed bears? Well, as Mitchum's bears were such a hit in the U.S., Steiff saw a lucrative market for her softer, stuffed bears, and a deal was struck to send 3,000 of her bears to the United States in 1903. Steiff's bears were immediately popular, and were also dubbed "teddy bears". By 1906, the name "Teddy Bears" was officially given to Steiff's toys, and they were to be found in nearly every toy store in America.
The Steiff company continues to manufacture bears to this day, and has many factories outside of Germany, including in Great Britain. Britain also picked up on the teddy bear craze, and in 1919 the Homes, Laxton & Co. was formed, which would soon begin to manufacture a jointed bear of mohair fabric, similar to the Steiff bears, called "Merrythought Bears". These became all the rage in the UK, and helped to foster the popularity of the Teddy bear in Britain.
Other Famous Teddy Bears
Britain was also the source for the famous "Paddington Bear", probably the most famous teddy bear in the UK. The Paddington Bear was originally a children's book about an immigrant bear who arrives in England from "Deepest Darkest Peru", with nothing but an old felt hat and a coat, and his battered suitcase. This story, by Michael Bond, was written for his children about a teddy bear he had bought them for Christmas. In the story, the bear arrives in Paddington Station, London, with a note attached to his rumpled coat that says "Please Look After This Bear. Thank-you". Today, after several more books about the bear, Paddington bears still come with the note, and remain a popular toy in the UK.
Possibly the most famous Teddy bear in the U.S. also has his origins in English children's literature. A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" has been a beloved story since its creation in 1926. Pooh's adventures with his human friend, Christopher Robin, are charming and funny and remain very popular in children's literature today. Pooh's popularity widened after his appearance in the Disney animated films of his stories, and even today it is a rare child that gets through childhood without having had a Pooh Bear at one time or another.
But all teddy bears, famous or not, have that charming potential to be loved and cherished by a child. We have Margarete Steiff and Theodore Roosevelt to thank for this icon of childhood that will no doubt continue to delight the child in us all for many years to come.
© Katharine L. Sparrow
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