For many people, memories of childhood include a teddy bear or two (or more). Over the years, the stuffed toy has served as a beloved source of comfort and is often a first friend. In adulthood, people continue to cherish these cuddly bears and even collect them as a hobby. Because the teddy bear has such a tremendous cultural presence, it’s difficult to imagine a time when it did not exist. But it wasn’t until 1902 that the teddy bear was first created.
The Early Years
The idea for the teddy bear came from an unlikely source: a cartoon in the Nov. 6, 1902, issue of The Washington Post. The cartoon, “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” was drawn by a political cartoonist named Clifford Berryman, who was inspired by the events of a hunting trip in Mississippi that involved President Theodore Roosevelt. The hunt was an uneventful one, which led the hosts to present the president with a restrained bear cub so he would have an animal to shoot. Roosevelt, however, refused, as the cub was helpless and it would be poor sportsmanship to shoot it.
The cartoon became a hit and was followed by another image of a docile bear shortly after. In Brooklyn, New York, the owners of a candy and stationery store, Morris and Rose Michtom, found inspiration in the popularity of these illustrations. Rose Michtom, who made and sold stuffed toys for their shop, designed a bear modeled after the one in the cartoons. Her plush creation sat upright and had shoe buttons for eyes and fur made of velvet. They called it “Teddy’s Bear” and placed it in the window of their store. The bears sold well, and the couple sent the president one as a gift for his children, along with a request for official permission to give the toy his name, which he granted. The widespread success of Teddy’s Bear eventually lead to it becoming a political symbol during the 1904 election, and it was present at every event held at the White House. Its success led the Michtoms to close their store and put their focus on creating the bears full-time. Teddy’s Bear would make it possible for them to start the Ideal Toy Company in 1903.
In the same year the Michtoms created Teddy’s Bear in the United States, a felt toy company in Germany, owned by Margarete Steiff, was creating another stuffed bear. Steiff’s nephew Richard, a former art student, fashioned a bear from his drawings of bear cubs at a zoo. Unlike their American counterpart’s cartoonish appearance, Steiff’s bears had a more realistic look and were the first toys of their kind to have movable limbs. The Steiff bear, called Bear 55PB, was introduced at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903, where it caught the attention of a trader from America. Hoping to cash in on some of the Teddy’s Bear popularity, he made a large order for 3,000 bears. Word of the Steiff bears spread, and they became a massive success in America.
The Teddy Bear Craze
The popularity of teddy bears in the early 1900s rivaled any of the toy crazes of modern times. While loved by children, they also enjoyed a measure of popularity among prominent society women, who would often carry the toy with them. To feed the demand, bears were being made by dozens of different American toy companies, which by now had done away with the name “Teddy’s Bear” in favor of the simpler “teddy bear.” One could buy bears in a multitude of colors or with special features, such as clothing. One of the biggest of these companies, which still manufactures bears today, was Gund Manufacturing Corporation. But besides the new American teddy bear manufacturers, German companies were exporting bears to the U.S., and they proved to be strong competitors. And in 1908, J.K. Farnell & Co. produced England’s first teddy bear.
America’s infatuation with the teddy bear grew beyond the stuffed toy, making its way into books and music, such as J.K. Bratton’s “The Teddy Bear Two Step,” which would years later become “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” with words added to the tune.
Teddy Bears in the 1920s-1940s
World War I could not dim the popularity of the teddy bear. In fact, teddy bears were even common among soldiers during the war, often given to them by sweethearts or parents. The soldiers would carry their bears for comfort and as a reminder of home.
While the desire for hand-finished bears remained high, the war caused changes in the industry. German manufacturers could not export their bears, which led to a decrease in teddy bear production, particularly in Europe. As a result, new British, French, and Australian companies filled the void.
The impact of war on the teddy bear industry was minimal in the United States, and in the following years, there was continuing growth. Times were great for teddy bear lovers during the ’20s and ’30s, including the arrival of the first talking teddy bear in the early 1920s. Certain changes in appearance and materials also occurred during this time. The switch from wood wool stuffing to kapok, a softer material, was one such change. Glass eyes also began replacing the button eyes common in the original bears.
Unfortunately, this prosperous period would not last. Between 1929 and 1939, the Great Depression struck the world. As with many industries, it took a toll on the American teddy bear companies. Because of a lack of work and money, many families took to making their own bears from materials in their homes rather than buying them. Manufacturers had to produce bears inexpensively or close their doors for good. Those that survived did so by using cheap materials and less of them. Stick bears, which were thin bears with long, stick-like legs, were a type of cheaply made bear that became popular during the Depression.
The Depression was not the only thing that negatively impacted teddy bear production. In 1939, the onset of World War II disrupted production, as factories now needed to be used to produce items to support the war effort. As a result, some manufacturers closed permanently.
The Lean Years: The 1950s-1970s
Post-World War II teddy bears went through more challenges and changes. One was a growing concern over the safety and cleanliness of the toy. In 1954 in the U.K., the Wendy Boston Company addressed these hygienic concerns with the first washable bear, made of nylon and a foam filler that was dustless and quick to dry. Not only were they cleaner, but they had features that made them safer, such as hard plastic screw-in eyes that locked in place with a rustproof nut. By the 1960s, bear manufacturers around the world, including the U.S., were making bears out of washable synthetic materials instead of the more traditional natural fibers.
However, the biggest blow to traditional teddy bear manufacturers was the rise of Asian mass production of cheap soft toys, including teddy bears. Established manufacturers found it difficult to compete, and many closed their doors.
The Teddy Bear’s Comeback
The teddy bear’s comeback starting in the 1970s was largely courtesy of collectors inspired by the British actor Peter Bull. The actor confessed his fondness for the stuffed animal while on television and in an ad that he ran in The London Times. Both times, he asked the public for facts about bear collecting, or arctophilia. In response, they sent him more than 2,000 letters. This led to Bear With Me, a book the actor wrote about not only his affection for the toy but also how it impacted the lives of other adults and children. Adults began collecting teddy bears as a hobby, and interest in these toys grew.
In the mid-1970s, artist bears were born. These are one-of-a-kind bears made by a single artist and not mass-produced. The so-called mother of teddy bear artistry was an American doll-maker named Beverly Port. She created a slide show about teddy bears and presented it to the United Federation of Doll Clubs. The success of the show piqued the interest of others who began making their own teddy bears by hand. Bears made by teddy bear artists continue to be popular with collectors.
Artist-designed manufactured bears soon grew from the artist bear phenomenon. As the name suggests, these are artist bears that are then mass-produced by companies such as Gund and Ganz. Because they are produced in bulk, they are typically more affordable than artist bears and, as a result, more accessible.
It isn’t just artist bears that have the attention of arctophiles today. Certain early teddy bears, now antiques, are extremely valuable. Their re-emergence began in toy and doll auctions during the 1970s and ’80s, and interest has continued to grow. Guinness lists a Steiff and Louis Vuitton bear as the most expensive teddy bear. In October 2000, it sold at Christie’s in Monaco for $182,550.
Today, the teddy bear continues to endure, comforting and delighting children and adults alike. In 1998, it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, solidifying its place as one of the most influential toys in history.
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