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The History of the Iconic Teddy Bear

teddy bears
Teddy Bears - An American Tradition

 

Teddy bears are naturally associated with babies and children. What makes a cute gift for a new baby? A stuffed bear in pink or blue. What makes an adorable centerpiece for a baby shower? A baby diaper cake decorated with Gund teddy bears. What do little boys drag around as their best friend for years? If you are thinking of Christopher Robin, then you'll immediately think of Winnie the Pooh, his stuffed bear.

With such an association, you might be surprised to learn that the Teddy Bear is rather new in terms of history. In fact, the Teddy Bear was invented to honor President Theodore Roosevelt and was given that name at the beginning of the 20th century. Just as interesting is the fact that the original teddy bears were not cute and cuddly.

The Hunting Trip That Wasn't

On November 14, 1902, President Roosevelt was on a bear hunting trip in Onward, Mississippi that was hosted by the Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino. The hunting party was large and many in the party had already gotten a bear. President Roosevelt was not very lucky on this particular trip and had not only not shot a bear, but had yet to spot one.

Not wanting Roosevelt to look bad, his assistants, led by Holt Collier, tracked a black bear deep in the woods with the help of their dogs. After beating the bear into submission, Collier had the bear tied to a willow tree and then called to the president. He suggested that Roosevelt shoot the bear so that the hunting trip would not be a failure. Though he loved a good hunt and was a well-known big game hunter, Roosevelt didn't feel that shooting a captive bear was very sportsmanlike, so he declined. However, the bear was injured and suffering, so Roosevelt asked that it be put down to end its misery.

teddy bears
Teddy Roosevelt Political Cartoon

 

News traveled across the nation that President Theodore Roosevelt would not shoot the bear. Newspapers picked up the story, and political cartoonist Clifford Berryman drew a cartoon showing how the President refused to kill the bear. Everyone loved to see the compassionate side of their president.

That cartoon was printed in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902. Soon, other cartoons followed, all with various renditions of President Roosevelt and a bear he would not shoot. From that time forward, Berryman often drew a bear cub in cartoons associated with Roosevelt.

From Hunting Trip to Storefront to International Fame

The first time a stuffed bear was referred to as a Teddy Bear came shortly thereafter. A candy shop owner in Brooklyn named Morris Michtom saw the cartoon and had an idea to bring more customers into his shop. His wife often made stuffed bears and other animals, so he got two and placed them in the window of his store. He got permission from the President to call them “Teddy's bears.” Ironically, though Teddy is short for Theodore, President Roosevelt detested the nickname. Nonetheless, the name stuck, and Teddy's bears were born.

Not only did Michtom succeed in bringing in more customers to his store, but he began to sell his wife's bears as quickly as she could make them. That's when he switched from selling candy to starting a company called the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company where he mass-produced the Teddy Bear.

Six months after the failed hunting trip, an American buyer for George Borgfeldt & Company in New York saw adorable stuffed bears at the Leipzig Toy Fair in Germany. He bought 3000 of these bears from the Steiff firm, and soon, these bears were known as Teddy bears as well. Since neither producer of the stuffed teddy bears knew of the other, both Michtom and Steiff are seen as the creators.

In addition to the actual bear, books and songs were also created about Teddy's bears. Seymour Eaton wrote a children's books series entitled The Roosevelt Bears. In 1907, John Walter Bratton wrote a two-step instrumental song called “The Teddy Bears' Picnic.” This instrumental piece eventually received lyrics written by Jimmy Kennedy in 1932.

Teddy Bears Then and Now

You might be surprised if you saw an original teddy bear because they've changed their looks over the years. The originals looked much more like an adult bear with a longer nose and small, beady eyes. They were also covered with mohair fur and were not terribly snuggly.

Over time, however, toy makers began converting these realistic bears into cute toys for children. Modern teddies have smaller noses, large foreheads, and bigger eyes, making them look more like cubs. Additionally, companies make all varieties of bears from polar to panda to grizzly and use a variety of materials from synthetic fur to cotton and denim.

Who Sells Teddy Bears Today?

It seems that the answer to this question is almost everyone! Small cottage industries often make teddy bears for special occasions. These can be personalized to look like an individual, made to represent a profession such as a nurse bear or a firefighter bear, designed to look like a movie character, or even created out of special fabric like a baby's first blanket or grandma's wedding dress.

The most popular brands for teddy bears are currently Gund and Ty. Gund has been making plush toys since 1898, and though not the first maker of the teddy bear, caught the craze early on and has been producing a wide variety of bears ever since. Ty, on the other hand, started creating plush toys about 90 years later and started the beanie baby craze. Of course, if we are going to talk of crazes, we can't leave out the Teddy Ruxpin and Care Bear crazes of the 1980's and 90's.

Finally, some bears are made through do-it-yourself chains such as Build-A-Bear Workshop and Vermont Teddy Bear Company. Stores around the world allow children and adults to create a teddy bear that reflects their own personality by picking a bear, stuffing it, and then adorning it with outfits and accessories.

Teddy Bears In Pop Culture

Teddy bears became so common that they began showing up everywhere. Books about teddy bears became so common that listing all of them would be impossible. A few you might remember include Paddington Bear, Corduroy, Jamberry, The Berenstain Bears, Brown Bear Brown Bear, and Little Bear.

In addition to books, teddies become popular on TV shows with Winnie the Pooh about a boy and his bear, the muppet Bobo the Bear, as well as the 2012 comedy Ted about teddy bears coming to life. There are also famous TV characters with their own teddy bears including Big Bird's teddy bear named Radar and Garfield's teddy bear named Pooky. We even see bears used in advertising such as Snuggle the teddy bear for Snuggle-brand fabric softener.

Teddy Bears for Comfort

Teddy bears are known by children for their magical, comforting powers. They are able to calm bad dreams, scare off the monsters under the bed, and push away loneliness. That is why emergency and hospital personnel often give teddy bears to children during a crisis. One program, called the Teddy Bear Cops program, allows police, fire, and emergency officials in the US to give children teddy bears during an emergency to help calm them down.

Victory Junction, a camp for chronically ill children in North Carolina, understands how comforting teddy bears are, too. Each year, every child that visits the camp gets a special bear made from black and white checkered material to help them with homesickness and then to remind them of camp throughout the year.

Other programs include Operation Hug, Teddy Bears That Care Program, Teddy Bears for Tears, and We Care Bears.

So, whether you buy a teddy bear for a newborn, use teddy bears to decorate a baby diaper cake for a baby shower, read stories about teddy bears, or donate so that emergency officials can give teddy bears to those in need, you are participating in a craze that started over 100 years ago when a President wouldn't shoot a bear.