Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Mystery of the Teddy Bear

The cartoon that led to the origin of the teddy bear. 

This blog entry is written by SCHS Assistant Curator Kaitlin Morton-Bentley.

The teddy bear is one of the most beloved toys all around the world, both with children and with adults. Some teddy bears are made to be cuddled and loved, while some designer teddy bears are created to be admired from afar. This familiar object has a surprisingly contentious beginning. The name “teddy bear” comes from a story about Teddy Roosevelt on a bear hunt in 1902 and the first teddy bear was invented the same year. The details of these events, however, are still a bit mysterious.

President Roosevelt traveled to Mississippi to settle a boundary dispute with Louisiana. During a break in negotiations, he was invited to go on a special hunting expedition organized by local sportsmen on the Mississippi Delta. Roosevelt was eager to shoot a bear during the hunt but no bears could be found. The organizers of the hunt finally used their dogs to chase down a bear and tied him to a tree for the President to shoot.

All sources agree that Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. What happened after, however, is debatable. Some sources say he refused because it was a very young bear and he did not want to take the life of a defenseless cub, and so he set the bear free.  Other sources reported that the bear was quite old, and Roosevelt did not feel the hunt was fair. He then ordered the bear killed by a knife and skinned.  Roosevelt’s decision to spare the life of a bear became famous when it was recreated in a cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman for the Washington Evening Star entitled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.” Interestingly, early versions of the cartoon show a much larger and older bear, with later cartoons portraying the bear as younger and friendlier. It is this later version that has become famous for inspiring the birth of the teddy bear.

This teddy bear, on display in the exhibit The Teddy Bear: Celebrating the Bears in Our Lives, is modeled after the first teddy bears. Notice the long arms, pointed  nose, stooped back, and short fur. Early teddy bears had movable heads and limbs. Teddy bears today tend to have rounder faces, shorter unjointed limbs, and softer fur. 

Soon after the publication of the cartoon, stuffed toy bears called “Teddy’s Bears” began appearing in stores. The creation of the first teddy bear, however, is questionable. Inventors from both the United States and Germany claim to have originated the teddy bear at the same time.

In the United States, Morris Michtom and his wife Rose owned a small candy store in Brooklyn.  Inspired by Berryman’s cartoon of Roosevelt and the bear, Rose made a toy bear out of brown plush and stuffing with movable arms and legs. She placed the bear in the store window next to a copy of the cartoon and called the bear “Teddy’s Bear.” The bear quickly sold, and soon they had orders for a dozen more.  From this success Morris and Rose formed the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1907, a toy company that lives on today as part of Mattel.

Across the Atlantic in Giengen, Germany, Margarete Steiff had been making and selling stuffed animals for decades before she created her first teddy bear in 1902. Confined to a wheelchair at a young age by polio, she had become an accomplished seamstress and by 1880 established her own company that sold felt elephants, monkeys, horses, camels, pigs, mice, cats, and dogs.  After observing brown bears in the Zoological Gardens in Stuttgart, her eldest nephew, Richard Steiff, suggested that she try making a toy bear with movable head and limbs. Margarete was skeptical at first, but when an American toy buyer from George Borgfeldt & Co. ordered 3,000 bears at the 1903 Leipzig Toy Fair, she was convinced of the potential of the stuffed bear.  The Margarete Steiff brand quickly grew into an international leader in teddy bear production that continues to produce a vast array of teddy bears and other stuffed animals for children and collectors alike. The Steiff Company maintains today that they created the teddy bear first.

In spite of the mysterious details surrounding Roosevelt’s bear hunt and the origins of the stuffed bear, the teddy bear only continues to gain in popularity worldwide. For play, comfort, or collecting, the teddy bear is like no other.

You can learn more about teddy bears and see some special bears on display by visiting our exhibit, The Teddy Bear: Celebrating the Bears in Our Lives. The exhibit is on display during the Festival of Trees through December 14, 2014. Admission to the Festival of Trees is $5.00 for adults and $2.00 for children ages 5-12. Children under 5 years of age are admitted free. For more information about the exhibit, or about the Festival of Trees, please contact Assistant Curator Kaitlin Morton-Bentley or call 518-374-0263, option 4.

Image from last year's Festival of Trees. The Festival is held annually as a joint fundraiser for the Schenectady County Historical Society and the YWCA of Northeastern New York.  


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