Last time I went shopping for a child’s birthday gift, I was struck by how usual it seemed to be in a toy store the size of a big-box discount mart. When I was a child, the only real mega-size toy store in the world was Hamleys in London (still the world’s biggest!) For those of us not fortunate enough to live within pilgrimage range of Hamleys, the toy store was a small shop on the street, or a section in a department store. It has been many years now since I have seen a small toy store – I don’t even remember having seen a toy section in a department store recently. Come to think of it, since we have been back in the USA, I can’t remember having seen any toy stores at all except for the one big chain. I hope it’s my lack of attention and not an actual monopoly. The big retailer has a mind-boggling selection, more variety than I ever imagined as a child, but it just doesn’t feel like a toy store to me. Getting old, I guess.
I like the old toys, the ones I remember from childhood. The wooden train set, the LEGOs, the teddy bear. You know, the toys that have been around forever. Or have they? (Cue dramatic music.)
Of all the classic (or old-fashioned, depending on your point of view) pre-electronic toys, teddy bears are among the newest. They were first manufactured for sale in 1902 (LEGO goes back to 1934). There is no doubt that teddy bears had existed before 1902 – people have made stuffed toys for their own children for centuries, and dolls go back to the dawn of civilization – but nobody can verify dates for unique, home-made toys from hundreds of years ago, so toy history has to deal with factory-made toys available for sale to the public.
Of all toys, the teddy bear has the coolest legend behind its origin. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt is usually credited with being the inspiration for the creation of the teddy bear. Unfortunately, this turns out to be not quite true. I can already hear the angry howls of outrage from Teddy Roosevelt fans everywhere. Slow down and give me another minute. The legend is true; it’s the connection to teddy bears that doesn’t quite hold water.
For those readers who don’t know what the fuss is about, the legend – which, I repeat, is completely true – goes like this:
President Teddy Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman – a genuine tough guy who loved big-game hunting. His physical fortitude was matched by his strength of character, which fact explains his continuing stature in American history as one of our great leaders. In November of 1902, President Roosevelt was invited on a bear hunt by the governor of Mississippi. After a long, exhausting day of hunting, Roosevelt still had not bagged a bear. He may have been in a bad mood at that point – hard work with no results will do that to most of us – and some of the staffers hunting with him thought it would be a good idea to make sure the President got a bear. In the end, hunting guide Holt Collier, aged 56, went out and brought a large black bear back alive – an incredible feat for a single hunter before tranquilizer darts. The bear was exhausted and hurt; the staffers tied it to a tree, brought the President, and told him he could shoot the bear. To his credit, Teddy Roosevelt was disgusted. No self-respecting hunter would shoot an animal that way. He refused, to the surprise of lesser men present. People talked; the word spread. The ground was laid for the legend of the Teddy Bear.
On November 16, 1902, the Washington Post published a drawing by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman. The cartoon showed President Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captive bear. Most readers paid more attention to the picture than to the caption: “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.” Berryman was using the hunting incident as a metaphor for President Roosevelt’s attitude towards racism in the South (and Mississippi in particular). The President had openly criticized the Mississippi state government for failing to stop lynchings of black citizens. He had also made a friend of his hunting guide Holt Collier, which was only an issue because Collier was black. The icing on the cake, though, came when President Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Washington, the great black orator, activist, and political advisor, had been at the White House before, but always on business. This was different; this was a social occasion. Racists were furious at such a public statement of race equality. Berryman’s cartoon was an acknowledgement of Theodore Roosevelt’s contribution to civil rights in America. But it was 1902; sixty years too early for civil rights. The cartoon inspired a Brooklyn shopkeeping couple, Rose and Morris Michtom, to make and sell small stuffed bears – called “Teddy bears”, of course. The toys became immensely popular almost overnight. Teddy bears became the most popular toys in the world; they still are today, after an 111-year run.
So where is the legend wrong? The problem is that, although President Teddy Roosevelt did indeed inspire the Michtoms to make toy bears, and although Berryman’s cartoon was directly responsible for the popularity of the teddy bear, the first factory-made teddy bears were made in Germany by Richard Steiff. There are at least two important facts supporting Steiff as the creator of the modern teddy bear, rather than Michtom:
First, Michtom’s toy bear was directly inspired by the Nov. 16, 1902 cartoon referring to the Roosevelt hunting incident. Even if the Michtoms could have gone from the idea stage to production of the first prototype bears, and sold them before Christmas, this places the origin of the toy bear in America at the very end of 1902. The Michtoms’ son Benjamin remembered a letter from February 1903 from his mother to the President, requesting permission to use the name “Teddy” to market the bears. This letter has never been produced, but it is reasonable to date the beginning of teddy bear production in America to the beginning of 1903.
Second, the Steiff factory did begin production of toy bears in 1902, although they were not called “teddy bears” until after the Michtom bears became popular by that name.
Third, the likelihood of Steiff producing toy bears before Michtom is increased by the fact that Steiff was an established toy factory that had been making stuffed animals since 1880. The bear was a new addition to a number of stuffed animal toys, the first of which was an elephant. The Michtoms’ business was stationery, not toys; the bears were made by Rose Michtom as a personal response to the Roosevelt hunting story.
So, although the legend of the Teddy Bear remains intact, it was responsible for the name and the popularity of the toy, not for the stuffed bear itself. It will always be a good story, and even more so if we remember the character and the values of the man who gave his name to a stuffed bear.