The Teddy Bear

A beloved childhood toy for over 100 years

February 15, 2022

Generations of children, no doubt, think of this toy – one of the first they were likely to have – as a source of comfort. The Teddy Bear was introduced in the United States on February 15, 1903.

The modern day Vermont Teddy Bears can be huge… my dad bought TWO for my Mom when she was in assisted living. The darn things took up alot of space!

Amazingly, two different manufacturers conceived the idea simultaneously. The year before, American President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt had been the focus of an incident involving a bear. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“The name originated from an incident on a bear hunting trip in Mississippi in November 1902, to which Roosevelt was invited by Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino. There were several other hunters competing, and most of them had already killed an animal. A suite of Roosevelt’s attendants, led by Holt Collier, cornered, clubbed, and tied an American black bear to a willow tree after a long exhausting chase with hounds.

They called Roosevelt to the site and suggested that he shoot it. He refused to shoot the bear himself, deeming this unsportsmanlike, but instructed that the bear be killed to put it out of its misery, and it became the topic of a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman in The Washington Post on November 16, 1902. While the initial cartoon of an adult black bear lassoed by a handler and a disgusted Roosevelt had symbolic overtones, later issues of that and other Berryman cartoons made the bear smaller and cuter.

Morris Michtom saw the drawing of Roosevelt and was inspired to create a teddy bear. He created a tiny soft bear cub and put it in his candy shop window at 404 Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn with a sign ‘Teddy’s bear.’ After sending a bear to Roosevelt and receiving permission to use his name, he began to produce them commercially to great demand. The toys were an immediate success and Michtom founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co.”

President Theodore Roosevelt and one of Morris Michtom’s “Teddy’ Bears

The Steiff Toy Company in Germany, which had been working on their bear since December 1902, introduced it at a toy show a month later.

It was, perhaps, the first ‘gotta-have-it’ toy for children.

Over the years the style of Teddy Bears has changed. Originally, they were made to look like real bears with long snouts and beady eyes. Modern bears tend to feature large round eyes, stubby noses, and an upturned mouth.

One need only look at culture to really understand the impact this toy made. Since its creation, there have been many children’s books which feature as its main character a bear: Paddington, Winnie-The-Pooh, and Corduroy, for examples.

The song “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” was inspired by the first Teddy Bears and there have been several movies and TV shows about the toy.

Like most products, its popularity waned over time, giving way to flashier toys. Then, in the 1990’s, the Teddy Bear had a revival spurred, no doubt, by the electronic Teddy Ruxpin and the wildly popular “Build-A-Bear” workshops.

The latter took the idea of creating your own bear and opened retail locations in malls everywhere. Now a child could pick and choose the features, give their ‘bear’ a unique name, and watch as it was ‘born.’ There were, of course, adorable clothes which can be purchased for the bear. A little girl might want a ballerina bear. Once you’ve invested in the bear – or other equally adorable stuffed animals –then there were hundreds of adorable outfits available. Today, the dolls start at $14 and go up from there. For $20.50 you can buy the ballerina outfit which includes the glittery tutu and shoes. As you can see, it gets quite spendy.

The machine where each child’s bear is ‘built.’ Part of the allure is getting to see your own ‘bear’ come to life

One of the first toys I remember as a child was my teddy bear. In fact, that bear slept with me every night, my comfort item.

As far as I know it arrived as a Christmas present the year I was two.

Over the years, his soft fur was worn away – except for one spot under the back of each of his legs – and his original eyes long ago replaced by two matching red buttons from my mother’s collection.

My sister received a similar bear, but hers was pale blue with a light pink tummy while mine was a tawny brown with a beige tummy. I asked her if she still had her bear but she said she did not, unsure when it left her life.

The author’s original ‘Teddy’ – still a source of comfort when one is sick.

Being a couple years older, I don’t think she had the same affinity for her bear that I had for mine. I’m no psychologist, but from a child development standpoint, there is a window of time when a child naturally starts to move away from their parent and when another object – like a stuffed toy, blanket, or baby doll – becomes their comfort. Around age two is about that age.

For me, when there was no one else to play with, Teddy served as a substitute. We had tea parties, I ‘read’ him books, and we colored together.

One of my favorite children’s books is The Velveteen Rabbit. It’s a story about a stuffed rabbit that is so loved by its ‘child’ that he loses his fur, his eyes, everything which makes him ‘beautiful.’ But the message of the story was not lost on me as I could see the parallels to my own Teddy. The book’s author, Margery Williams Bianco, shares this bit of wisdom:

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

And, yes, I still have my Teddy. He’s traveled with me through life, always there to offer comfort when needed, a reminder of what’s ‘real’ in life.

A few links:

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