Contrary to this claim, found on several internet pages, there does not seem to exist an exact date on which the Michtom couple, in fact, began commercialising their first model of a teddy bear. What is known, however, is a story worth telling, so why not on this day, as it is a likely date for the claim in question and close enough to the month of November, 114 years ago, when it all began with the American President Theodore (‘Teddy’) Roosevelt.
While on a diplomatic mission in the Mississippi – Louisiana area in mid-November 1902, Roosevelt accepted the invitation of the Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino to stay for a bear hunting holiday. It proved embarrassing for the host as no bear turned up the first few days. Finally, an old, big black bear was cornered by the dogs, clubbed unconscious when fighting back and tied to a tree so that Roosevelt could make his kill. Roosevelt refused as he considered killing under these conditions unsportsmanlike, and a knife was used to put the animal out of its misery. More details here.
A few days later a cartoon by Clifford Berryman appeared in the Washington Post with the caption “Drawing the line in Mississippi”. It portrayed the President as a compassionate soul refusing to kill … a cute, innocent-looking little bear cub. People were touched – and the Russian immigrant couple Morris and Rose Michtom, owners of a small penny shop in Brooklyn, New York, worked hard that night to produce a plush bear modelled on the cartoon drawing. The next day “Teddy’s Bear” together with a copy of the cartoon were put on display in their shop window, and customers came pouring in who wanted to buy the bear. Legend has it that Michtom then wrote to Roosevelt asking for permission to use the name ‘Teddy’, to which Roosevelt apparently had no objection as he did not believe his name to make any difference in the toy bear business.
By 1903 the Michtoms were wholly dedicated to the commercialisation of what would soon be simply called teddy bear, and by 1907 they had founded Ideal Novelty and Toy Company (later only Ideal Toy Company).
However, the Michtoms were not the first to ‘invent’ the teddy bear – though they first introduced the original name “Teddy’s Bear”. In Giengen-an-der-Brenz in the Black Forest region, Germany, a seamstress by the name Margarete Steiff had been sewing popular toy elephants for some time, when her nephew Richard Steiff, an art student, proposed to her to make the kind of bear he had been drawing at the Stuttgart Zoo. The American market was canvassed for interest in their bear model in 1902, but without success.
In March 1903, after having presented this new toy to little effect at the Leipzig Spring Toy Fair, Richard Steiff was about to pack up when an American toy dealer became interested and ordered 3000 bears. The tale goes that these, for some mysterious reason, never arrived in the U.S. – more here – yet it was the beginning of Steiff’s success story. By 1904, the bears could be identified by the typical Steiff-clip in one ear, and soon they would be called by the same name as their American counterparts.
To date, teddy bears have never ceased being in great demand – as a little boy’s or girl’s first friend and companion, as a personal or collective mascot, as a gift to beloved ones; they can be cuddled and talked to, they listen patiently, and their presence is comforting. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes, fans collect them, museums are dedicated to them, they feature in songs and films (e.g. Winnie the Pooh). In the 1970s “teddy bear artists” began creating individualised plush versions. And in 2001, over 100 huge sculptured bears, artfully decorated, were part of a street art project by Klaus und Eva Herlitz for the very city whose heraldic animal is the bear: Berlin. Welcoming works of beauty, the Buddy Bears (as they are called) captured the hearts of tourists and Berliners alike, and in 2002 the project was expanded to create the United Buddy Bears: about 140 2m-bears, each representing a country recognised by the UN and designed by an artist of that country, standing together ‘hand by hand’, thus symbolising tolerance and peaceful togetherness. To promote these aims they are currently travelling the world, their last exhibition having been in Santiago, Chile, in 2015. More can be read on their site.