The Crazy History of the Teddy Bear

Everyone agrees that the “Teddy Bear” was invented in 1902, and is named after Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, then President of the United States, however a dispute between America and Germany has continued for a century as to who made the first Teddy Bear…

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Origin of the “jointed bear”

The story begins in Germany, in late October 1902, where Richard Steiff, a toy designer working for the family firm in Giengen, went to a touring American circus in search of an idea for a popular new toy. Among the animals he saw there was a troupe of performing bears, and they sparked off the original idea. The following day, he put his thoughts down on paper for Margarete Steiff, his aunt, who had founded the firm in 1880.

Richard saw an opportunity to make a bear toy, standing upright, and jointed in a similar way to dolls. There had been bear toys before, of course – often made from real fur, but these had all been copies of real bears on all fours. Richard’s bear would be able to walk upright. Richard set to work on visiting the Nill’scher Zoo in Stuttgart to sketch the bears and come up with some proper designs for a jointed bear codenamed Steiff Bär 55 PB (“Bär” is German for “bear”, 55 = the bear’s height in centimetres; P = Plusch, plush; and B = beweglich, moveable limbs).

Origin of the “Teddy” bear

Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, President Roosevelt, visiting Mississippi to settle a border dispute, decided to go out hunting on November 14, 1902 near the town of Smedes. After several hours, he still hadn’t bagged anything, when one of his aides discovered a lost bear cub wandering through the woods. Catching it, the aide tied it to a tree, and brought the President to it. To Roosevelt’s eternal credit, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot the defenseless cub, and ordered it to be set free by declaring, “Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal.”

The press pack following Roosevelt’s visit heard about the story, and it inspired cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman to draw a cartoon of the incident, entitled ‘Drawing the Line in Mississippi’. This cartoon was printed in The Washington Post, and triggered a moment of inspiration for Brooklyn candy store owner Morris Michtom, a Russian Jewish immigrant and his wife Rose.

Political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, The Washington Post, Nov 16, 1902

Using Berryman’s cartoon as a guide, he quickly worked out a pattern, and, his wife, Rose cut and stuffed a piece of plush velvet into the shape of a bear, sewed on shoe button eyes, creating a little jointed bear cub. On February 15th 1903, Morris put into his shop window at 404 Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn with a copy of the cartoon, and a handwritten notice saying ‘Teddy’s Bear‘.

To his surprise, not only did someone enter the store asking to buy the bear, but twelve other potential customers also asked to purchase it. Aware that he might offend the president by using his name without permission, the Michtoms mailed the original bear to the White House, offering it as a gift to the president’s children and asking Roosevelt for the use of his name. The President apparently replied telling the Michtoms he doubted his name would help its sales but they were free to use it if they wanted.

Because of “Teddy’s Bear’s” popularity, Roosevelt and the Republican Party adopted it as their symbol in the election of 1904, and Michtom bears were placed on display at every public White House function.

The Bears sold very well, and within a year, Michtom closed his candy store, and founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co., which remained in family hands until the 1970s – still one of the biggest toy firms in the world.

To Richard’s disappointment, nobody seemed interested. Legend has it that it was only as Richard was packing away the stand at the end of the fair, that an American toy buyer, Hermann Berg of New York wholesalers George Borgfeldt and Co., came up to him, bought the entire lot of 100 bears and ordered 3,000 more on the spot. And so the Teddy Bear was born, and sent on his way to international success.

Image of the first ever fully jointed bear – Steiff Bear (Bär) 55PB from 1902

Original “Teddy’s Bear” from 1903, from Morris Michton of the Ideal Toy Co. This bear was owned by Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit. Michton gave the bear to him in December 1963. The Roosevelts donated it to the Smithsonian a month later.

The global “Teddy Bear”…

In Germany, unaware of what was going on in New York, Richard Steiff completed the designs for his bear 55PB, and Margarete quickly ran up a prototype from scraps of mohair cloth. The bear, christened ‘Friend Petz’ first appeared in public in March of 1903 at the Spring Toy Fair in Leipzig, Germany.