What has helped more children get a good night’s rest than just about anything over the last century? The teddy bear. Teddy bears have not only helped kids get to sleep, they’ve also taken the role of best friend, ally and confidante and have helped them feel secure in the scariest of circumstances. These days, they’ve become so important that it is customary for one to keep their teddy bear throughout their lifetime or to pass it down through the generations. When did this American tradition of sleeping with a teddy bear start? Let’s turn our calendars back to the dawn of the last century.
The teddy bear gained popularity in America in 1902 after a newspaper cartoon by Clifford Berryman in The Washington Post was published showing then-president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear. Now, why did Roosevelt, known to be an avid hunter and lover of the great outdoors, refuse to shoot the grizzly animal? The story goes that Mr. Roosevelt was taken on a hunting expedition in Mississippi where he was settling a boarder dispute with Louisiana. For three days the hunt was so fruitless that the president became frustrated. To assuage the Commander-in-Chief’s anguish, his hosts captured a bear and presented it to him on a leash so he could shoot it and not return to Washington empty handed. But, Roosevelt refused to harm the animal. The story was depicted in The Washington Post cartoon and the bear, named after the president’s nickname, “Teddy,” soon become an American icon.
The cartoon caught wildfire and was re-printed throughout the U.S. Soon, Morris and Rose Michtom of Brooklyn, New York made a stuffed bear aptly named “Teddy’s Bear” and put him in the window of their candy store. The bear was different from other stuffed bears because it was kind and cute, looking like the bear in Berryman’s cartoon; opposed to most stuffed bears which were intimidating and scary. The stuffed critter was a huge hit and soon the Mitchoms founded the first stuffed bear manufacturer in the U.S., the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.
By 1906, the teddy bear craze was in full swing. One could compare it to subsequent toy-induced mania such as Tickle Me Elmo in the ’90s or Cabbage Patch Dolls in the mid-’80s. Around this time, Germany, who already had a bustling toy industry, began to overtake the U.S. in the teddy bear manufacturing market. In 1921, one Christopher Robin Milne received his first teddy bear from his parents. Christopher’s adventures with his stuffed animals were put down on paper by his father, A.A. Milne and soon became the Winnie-the-Pooh stories generations have grown to love.
The teddy bear enjoyed popularity until World War 2 when both the United States and Germany turned their factories toward the manufacture of more threatening devices. In the ’50s and thereafter most teddy bear manufacturing moved to the Far East. Although the teddy bear experienced a decline in popularity over the next few decades, in the ’80s the artisan teddy bear became in vogue as an adult collectible.
As we enter a new millennium filled with more complex toys and video games, strangely, the teddy bear is still around. As he lies in the arms of a sleeping child he serves as reminder that qualities like companionship and imagination truly are timeless.