Teddy Bares All: The Naked Truth about America’s Love Affair with the Teddy Bear
by Marjorie Dorfman

Baby, let me be your lovin’ teddy bear,
Put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere,
Oh, let me be your teddy bear.
 . . . 
Elvis Presley, with the help of others, 1957

How did the teddy bear get its name? Why is it usually the first toy a child receives and yet it is also a gift for all ages, seasons and occasions? In short, what has teddy got that other toys don’t? For the inside scoop and a few laughs, read on.

A poor sense of timing has followed me relentlessly all the years of my life. It is a particular talent that is neither divinely inherited nor appreciated. Even though I am punctual to a fault, my connection with the universe never ceases to put me "in the know" slightly after the fact. (I probably didn’t even know I was born until after it happened! And they say the father is the last to know!) This sense or perhaps lack thereof, explains my inspiration to write an article about the teddy bear 101 years after it burst upon the American cultural scene. And burst it did, when our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, visited the southern United States back in November, 1902 to help settle a border dispute between Mississippi and Louisiana.

As the story goes and it is a rather tall one, during a bear hunting excursion one of Roosevelt’s companions captured a cub, tied it to a tree and invited the President to finish it off. The big game President couldn’t bring himself to kill the little guy. One witness to the incident was Clifford Berryman, who worked for the Washington Post. He captured the scene with a cartoon called: "Drawing the Line in Mississippi." It depicted Roosevelt’s dual accomplishments on the trip; negotiating border disputes and protecting wild life. The cartoon was published in newspapers across the country and the story caught on quickly. Soon Teddy’s Bear, as it came to be known by its first manufacturers, gained popularity with Americans of all ages and was featured in all cartoons depicting the president.

The small cub inspired Russian immigrants, Morris and Rose Michtom to create a bear in honor of the President's noble actions. Well aware of the marketability of a good and well-known deed, they displayed two toy bears in the window of their novelty store in Brooklyn, New York. Rose, who used plush stuffed excelsior and shoe buttons for eyes, made both. When they sold quickly, Michtom sent Roosevelt a bear and received permission from the President himself to call them Teddy’s Bear. They were a tremendous success. As demand for them increased, Michtom, with the help of a wholesale firm called Butler Brothers, founded the first bear manufacturing company in the United States, The Ideal Novelty and Toy Corporation.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, or actually across the Atlantic Ocean in Giengen, Germany, the Steiff Company, which had been making toys since 1880, was producing its jointed bear. Richard Steiff, nephew of the company’s owner and former art student, had the idea to make a toy bear standing upright after seeing performing bears at a touring American circus. He often visited the Stuttgart Zoo to sketch bears and cubs for the new design. In 1902, the same year the Michtoms made Teddy’s Bear, the Steiff firm developed a prototype of a toy based on Richard’s drawings. Though both the Mictoms and the Steiffs were working on bear toys simultaneously, neither knew about the other’s creation. In truth, they were different; the Michtom’s creation resembled the wide eyed cub in Berryman’s cartoon, while the Steiff bear, with its humped back and long snout, looked more like a real cub.

In March 1903 at the Leipzig Toy Fair, the Steiff Company introduced its jointed bear. Europeans ignored it, but an American toy buyer who was aware of the growing popularity of Teddy’s Bears in The United States, ordered 3,000. By the end of the year this order rose to 12,000. While other stories have been told regarding the origins of this wonderful toy, the simultaneous births in Brooklyn and Germany are the best substantiated. Teddy bear without the 's' first appeared in the October 1906 issue of Playthings Magazine. It soon became the accepted term. Steiff went on to become the crème de la crème of the teddy bear business, a status reflected in their steep prices today.

Collecting teddy bears (Arctophillia) has become an international pursuit. Actor Peter Bull, was one of the most prominent and his fame certainly contributed to making collecting the little darlings as popular a pastime as it is today. He toured the United States with his collection and the teddy bear that appeared in Brideshead Revisited was from his own private stash. Sotheby’s held their first teddy bear auction in 1982. A Steiff Teddy Girl, the most expensive teddy bear in the world, (the equivalent in US dollars of $171,600) was sold at Christie’s in South Kensington, England. Its former owner was Colonel T. Henderson, a leader of the British branch of the organization, "Good Bears of The World" (Unite?). The Japanese collector who bought it is said to have booked the bear on his own first class seat back to Japan!

According to doll expert, Tim Luke, Steiff bears "have become hard to find and very expensive." Teddys are with us all of our lives and on all occasions. They are our friends and playmates as children and become our significant collectibles as adults. Other toys have been popular in their day, the hula-hoop and the yo-yo, for example, but none of them has stood the test of time as the teddy bear. There is neither a holiday nor an occasion that is not marked with a teddy bear, either as part of a card or decoration. They are charmingly ubiquitous and never lose their cuddly warm appeal. You see them bearing shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day, hearts on the day of the valentine, flags on the Fourth of July and cheers for Christmas and the New Year, just to name a few. They have so assimilated into all types of advertising that they are almost invisible. (Try going into a card store and counting teddy bears wherever you see them. I tried and I went nuts, even though I have been there (nuts, that is) many times before.)

In the collecting of teddy bears, authenticity, provenance and condition are of paramount importance. "Mohair is still king" claims Tim Luke, "whether the bear was made 100 years ago or today." The first bears were stuffed with wood shavings (wood wool). The paws on early bears of good quality were made from felt; brushed cotton for the cheaper ones. During the 1930s, kapok and wool waste began to be used, although wood wool was almost always preferred for the head. Because of this, a bear with a softer body is unlikely to have been made before 1930. The early bears had boot button eyes. In the 1920s these were changed to glass ones. They also had snouts that were quite long and the nose was usually stitched with silk thread. The nose became progressively shorter until it became the relatively flat one seen today. The original bears also had a pronounced hump, mimicking that of a real bear. This has also gradually disappeared.

With the increase in value of teddy bears, the production of fakes has become a lucrative business. Before you spend your hard-earned money, look at many bears. Visit toy and teddy bear museums. Make sure you are familiar with the overall look of bears of different periods and types. Check that the distinctive features like the length of the snout, type of eyes, hump (or lack of hump) are all consistent with its supposed age and manufacture. Also, make sure that the fabric coincides with the period in which it was made and that any wear and tear is in logical places, such as where the bear would have been held or cuddled. Any wear on the top of the head or the face, for example, should raise a few flags of various colors. Another tip is to smell the little darling. Does it smell as if it was made yesterday or does it have the musty, dusty smell of your grandmother’s attic? (Don’t try this test with fish. Old loses there.)

Today, most American companies have workers in Korea, China or Taiwan make their teddy bears because labor costs are so low there. According once again to Tim Luke, "the true American teddys of today are the artist-made bears. That is to say, these bears are originally designed and made one at a time by craftsmen who tend to give more attention to detail than the larger companies." Because these bears are handmade and distinctive, collectors pay anywhere from $200-$1,000 for one of them. Many of these artist-made teddys are sold by magazines, teddy bear clubs on the Internet and doll shops.

Whatever you decide, your ultimate decision should be to buy the teddy that most appeals to you. This will counter any disappointment you might muster if it turns out not to be the plaything of some Gilded Age aristocrat’s child. It will also lift you to unspeakable heights if it should happen to be authenticated as the original inspiration for Elvis Presley’s pelvic expressions of love eternal. In any case, appreciate or depreciate, the teddy bear is here to stay. Over time they all become more endearing, even if we as adults never really grow up! (I won’t mention any names here. You know who you are!)

Long live Tinkerbelle and the teddy bear!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003