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Today in history... first 'Teddy bears' go on sale

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Did you have a teddy bear when you were a child? Perhaps you still have it as a treasured memento of those carefree days?

The first ‘teddy bears’ went on sale 115 years ago today in the New York shop window of inventor and toy maker Morris Mitchom. Their invention was inspired by a well-publicised incident of November the previous year involving American President Theodore Roosevelt.

A renowned outdoorsman, Roosevelt had been on a hunting trip in Mississippi. Several of the other hunters had already shot various wild animals and the President’s hosts, keen that he shouldn’t be left out, decided to act. They used hounds to hunt down an American black bear and tied the exhausted animal to a tree before offering President Roosevelt the chance to shoot it.

Roosevelt, however, deemed such an act ‘unsportsmanlike’ and refused to shoot the bear, with some later reports suggesting he instead ordered it to be released. News of the incident spread quickly and it became the topic of a political cartoon in the Washington Post by renowned cartoonist Clifford Berryman. The original cartoon showed Roosevelt refusing to shoot an adult black bear held on a leash by its handler, but later and more widely seen versions made the bear smaller and cuter.

One of those to see the cartoon (pictured) was Morris Mitchom, who mainly sold candy in his New York store but also soft toys which he and his wife, Rose, made in the evenings. Inspired by the drawing, he created a small soft bear cub toy which he sent to President Roosevelt along with a letter seeking permission to used his nickname ­– “Teddy”. Despite reportedly loathing his nickname, the President gave his permission.

On February 15th, 1903, Mitchom placed two of the handmade soft toys in his shop window along with a sign reading “Teddy’s bear”. They were an instant success, drawing crowds and orders for the cuddly toys. Mitchom and his wife couldn’t cope with demand for the toys and, realising they would have to me mass made, he founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. It grew to become one of the world’s biggest toy companies, originally producing a range of ‘teddy bears’ and dolls and later many other toys and games, including the Rubik’s Cube.

Noting Mitchom’s early success, other toymakers soon began producing their own ‘teddy bears’ which also sold well. At around the same time, but entirely by coincidence, the German firm of Steiff produced a stuffed toy bear to the designs of Richard Steiff, who had spent hours sketching bears in the enclosure at Nill’scher Zoo, near Stuttgart. Standing 55cm tall, with plush fur and moveable limbs (beweglich), his prototype was codenamed the Steiff Bär 55 PB.

It made its debut at the 1903 Liepzig Toy Fair, where an American buyer snapped up the entire first production run of 100 bears and ordered 3,000 more. More Steiff bears flooded the American market after the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, where the German company sold 12,000 bears to meet the craze for ‘teddy bears’ now sweeping the USA.

Steiff would go on to produce a range of high quality toy bears, with a distinctive metal button in their ear. Early or rare examples now command high prices from collectors, such as a limited run of 82 Steiff ‘mourning bears’ produced to commemorate the Titanic disaster in 1912.

Early teddy bears more closely resembled real bears, with pronounced snouts and beady eyes, but over the years their features have softened to make them cuter and more appealing to young children. All around the world, children are gifted teddy bears and many form a strong attachment to a particular one which can last a lifetime. There are even teddy bear museums celebrating our peculiar fondness for these lovable soft toys, including the world’s first, opened at Petersfield, in Hampshire, in 1984.

Whether your teddy bear is a valuable Steiff or a tatty and much-loved pal, if you haven’t seen him for a while maybe you should get him out and give him a cuddle, just for old times’ sake!

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