The history of the teddy bear is a lovely story from President Teddy Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captive bear to Morris Michtom and his wife creating what is now accepted as the first of the modern Teddys’ Bear.
The history of what we know today as the Teddy Bear begins in Germany, in late October 1902, where Richard Steiff, a toy designer working for the family firm in Giengen, in search of ideas for new toys and went to see a touring American circus. Among the performing animals he saw there was a troupe of bears. They sparked off his ideas and he saw the possibility of making a bear toy jointed in a similar way to the dolls that they produced.
He put his thoughts down on paper for his aunt, Margarete Steiff, born in 1847 and who had founded the firm in 1880. She liked the idea and Richard set to work on visiting zoo’s to sketch bears.
There had been bear toys before, often made from real fur and mostly on wheels, but these had all been copies of real bears on all fours. Richard Steiff however, wanted his bear to be able to stand upright.
In November 1902, the American President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was relaxing during a trip to settle a border dispute in Mississippi and was taking part in a hunting trip in the state of Mississippi. Having had no luck in finding a bear, members of the presidential hunting party tracked and caught a small black bear which, as the story goes, was a motherless cub. They tied it to a tree and then “invited” the President to shoot it as a trophy of his visit. When the president arrived on the scene he refused to shoot the bear, considering it to be unsportsmanlike.
The incident caused Clifford K Berryman to draw a cartoon titled “Drawing The Line in Mississippi” which linked the incident to the political dispute that had taken President Roosevelt to Mississippi in the first place. The cartoon appeared in the Washington Post on the 16th November 1902.
The cartoon drew immediate attention. In Brooklyn, NY, shopkeeper Morris Michtom displayed 2 toy bears in the window of his Stationery and Novelty store with the cartoon.
The bears had been made by his wife Rose from black plush stuffed excelsior and finished with black button eyes. Michtom soon recognised the immediate popularity of the new toy.
He requested and received permission from President ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt personally to call them Teddy’s Bears. As demand for these new toys increased, Michtom moved his business to a loft where, with the backing of the Butler Brothers opened the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, later called the Ideal Toy Company which was one of the largest American toy companies.
About the same time as it was born in the United States, the Teddy Bear was also born in Giengen in Germany. The Steiff Company of Giengen first introduced the stuffed jointed bear BAR 55PB, christened “Friend Petz” at the 1903 Leipzig Toy Fair.
It was here where a New York Toy Importer, Hermann Borgford of George Borgford & Co. ordered several thousand of the Steiff bears for shipping to the USA because of the popularity of the “teddy’s bear” toy there.
While American firms mainly supplied their home market, the German firms at first Steiff, and later competitors such as Bing, Hermann and Shuco, exported bears across Europe. Only after the First World War did the Teddy Bear industries of other countries start to make a mark.
Although some Teddy Bear toys had been made in Britain from around 1910, large-scale bear manufacture only began around 1915. Among the first firms involved were J.K. Farnell, The Deans Rag Book Company and H.G. Stone & Co (who sold under the tradename ‘Chiltern Toys’).
English bears tended to be softer in look and feel than their German cousins, and were a major influence throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Farnell bears are generally acknowledged to be the English equivalent of Steiff, but many other companies, including Deans, Chiltern, Chad Valley Co. and Merrythought (founded in 1930) made beautiful Teddies.
The United States was relatively untouched by the war and its teddy bear industry continued to grow.
The Knickerbocker Toy Company got its start in 1920 and continues to make teddy bears today. Nine years later in 1929 the US was hit by the Depression and most teddy bear companies were hurt by the downturn in the market. After 1929 and into the 1930’s, many American companies either found cheaper ways to produce bears or they shut down.
World War Two (1939-1945) however, brought a halt to bear production across Europe. When things gradually returned to normal, many new Teddy designs appeared alongside the traditional jointed bears.
One of the most influential of these new bears was designed by Wendy Boston who saw the rapid spread of washing machines and created an unjointed, fully washable bear, a design which was soon copied by all the other manufacturers. The Wendy Boston design influenced most of the bears made throughout the 1960s and 1970s and its shape even affected the look of jointed bears.
From the mid 1970s onward, more and more adults began collecting Teddy Bears. At first, they were happy with the modern designs, but as the history of the Teddy Bear became known, some people began to look for older bears with traditional designs. As manufacturers realised the interest in old bears, they began to aim some of their new products at collectors, rather than children. Independent bear artists such as Iris and Ches Chesney began producing beautiful and affordable teddy bears to old designs.
This continues to this day with many manufacturers designing special “limited edition” bears for each season and with the centenary of the teddy bear in 2002/2003, many producers have brought out special designs to mark the occasion.
Of great interest in recent years however is the amazing rise of the independent Bear Artists who produce teddies, often as a hobby. Talented people from all walks of life such as Janet Changfoot of South Africa are now producing truly wonderful creations and a good number of these artists have become internationally recognised.
So what next for the teddy bear? In 1999, in just the United States, it is reported that collectors purchased $441 million worth of teddy bears so our love affair with the teddy bear shows no signs of abating. As we begin our journey through the twenty first century, could it be that we need the teddy bear’s gift of love, tenderness, acceptance and reassurance more than ever.