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Historical Background of Teddy Bears

September 4th, 2013 Collectibles

Although kids can appreciate stuffed animals in many forms, teddy bears may be considered the most classic of all plush toys. Many people may not realize that the teddy bear's origins are a subject of dispute. Some sources note that the original nationality of teddy bears is American, while others claim the toys are of German descent.

In the U.S., the better-known part the teddy bear origin story stems from a hunting trip taken by President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt in 1902 through the woods of Mississippi, according to the website Teddy Bears and Pals (TBP). After several hours, all the other members of the hunting party had claimed a trophy except the president. Worried about harming his manly reputation, the other hunters cornered a black bear. (TBP describes the outnumbered bear as a cub, while the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA) states that the bear was very old.) Either way, the hunters chased it until it grew too tired to defend itself, and tied it to a tree. Then they directed President Roosevelt to the bear, thinking he would restore his pride if he shot it.

However, Roosevelt's sense of honor was too strong to take advantage of wounded prey. Refusing to shoot the bear for sport, he instead ordered it to be put down in order to end its suffering.

According to the TRA, this story inspired a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, whose drawing of the bear closely resembles a large version of what later became the iconic children's toy. In copies of the cartoon printed by other newspapers, the bear was drawn as smaller and cuter than in the original.

Ideal Novelty and Toy Co. versus the Steiffs
Here's where the story gets a little confusing - TBP explains that, inspired by the Berryman drawing, a Brooklyn candy store owner by the name of Morris Michtom and his wife Rose created bear dolls, and placed them in their shop window alongside a copy of the cartoon. Before long, the couple was making more money from selling plush bears than candy, so they started the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.

Meanwhile, right around the same time in Germany, toy designer Richard Steiff pitched the idea of bear toys that stood upright, instead of on all fours, to his seamstress aunt Margarete Steiff. TBP states that these bi-ped bears first appeared in 1903 under the moniker "Friend Petz" and became popular when they caught the eye of an American toy distributor. These days, the Steiff company continues under the family name, and manufactures bears for children and adult collectors.

Famous friendly bears
One can't help but wonder whether these toys went on to affect popular culture. Winnie-the-Pooh, the brutally lovable star of children's literature and animated films and TV shows, first appeared in 1924, well after the hugging of teddy bears had become all the rage in the U.K. Other characters from children's entertainment that are possibly influenced by the works of the Steffs, Berryman and the Michtoms include the Berenstain Bears, Yogi Bear, Smokey Bear, Paddington Bear, the Care Bears, Baloo the bear from the Jungle Book, Corduroy Bear and Fozzie Bear. Like teddy bears, all of these walk on their hind legs and have a much friendlier disposition than real bears are commonly known to exhibit in nature.