Teddy Bear History: From Fairy-tail and Legend

They may now be in just about everyone’s home in a variety sizes, shapes and colors, but it wasn’t always that way. The history of the teddy bear is actually quite a tale to tell.

While paintings found in tombs suggest that ancient Egyptians used stuffed animals for religious purposes, if you were wondering where our contemporary furry friends originated, it’s actually a century-old story of two countries – Germany and America – way back in yea olde 1902.

In the Beginning, There Were Steiff Bears

margarete steiff teddy bear history

Margarete Steiff holding one of her Steiff bears

For the German half of this tale, it’s interesting to first look back a little further, to the almost fairy-tail-like history of the now famous Steiff company. I’m sure you’ve heard of them!

Margarete Steiff GmbH was how the company was originally known. It was founded 22 years before the rise of the iconic teddy bear, in 1880, by a woman by the name of, yep, you guessed it – Margarete Steiff (1847 – 1909). You can see a photo of her to the left. Stricken down by polio when she was only a baby of 18 months, she was left without the use of her legs and only partial use of her right arm, and so spent the majority of her life in a wheelchair.

Margarete did not let these sad events rule her life, however, and she had taken up the art of sewing at a young age. She originally founded the Steiff company selling elephant-shaped pin-cushions based on a design she saw in a magazine, but it wasn’t long until she found that they had become quite popular among children. At that time stuffed animals existed only as a novelty, and seeing how much joy her creations brought to children, she went on to design and create many other stuffed animals, like dogs, cats and pigs, and these became the main focus of her company.

Fast forward to 1902. Margarete’s nephew, Richard Steiff, was now working at her company. Richard was seeking ideas for a new toy design, and he often attended a local zoo to sketch the animals. He must have been inspired by the bears there to lay down the first designs of a bipedal stuffed bear, and a year later, the bears, code-named Steiff Bär 55 PB, made their first appearance at a Leipzig toy fair.

Steiff went on to manufacture almost a million of these bears in 1907, and the company’s fortunes have been growing ever since.

Concerning Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt’s Bears

Teddy Roosevelt's bear cartoon

Teddy Roosevelt’s Bear cartoon by Clifford Berryman. From The Washington Post, November 16, 1902.

Meanwhile, around the same time, on the other side of the world, a separate and now legendary tale of teddy bear history was unfolding.

Then President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt (1858-1919) was on a hunting expedition in Mississippi. Hunting was something he was famous for, but on this outing, luck was not on his side. He caught nary a thing – but not wanting the President to leave empty handed, his attendants had caught and clubbed a baby black bear for him, and tied it to a tree.

President Roosevelt wanted none of this, however, and refused to shoot the bear, claiming it was unsportsmanlike. He did still order it to be shot though, so as to put the wounded bear out of its misery. Word of this got out, and the President’s empathy toward the bear became immortalized in a cartoon published in The Washington Post (pictured on right).

A candy store owner from Brooklyn, by the name of Morris Michtom, was inspired by this cartoon. He, with the help of his wife, Rose, designed a new stuffed toy and even sought the President’s approval for its name. They called it, yep, Teddy’s Bear.

Teddy’s Bear took America by storm, and Morris went on to found the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1907. Teddy’s Bear eventually became a general term for what we know today, as a teddy bear.

Teddy Bear History: To the Present

steiff bear ear tag

A modern-day Steiff bear with the iconic ear tag

From these two humble beginnings, teddy bears took not only Germany and America by storm, but the whole world. They helped popularize many other types of stuffed animals as well, and they now appeal to people of all ages for many and varied reasons, even becoming collector’s items.

Steiff, as I’m sure you know, has become a long lasting name in the industry, a name now almost synonymous with quality teddy bears. The little ‘Knopf im Ohr’ (button in ear) tags most of their bears feature (pictured below) were originally added in 1904 only to help stop counterfeit bears from being sold, and the first ones featured a little elephant, representing the company’s beginnings. That tag has now become one of the iconic and defining traits of Steiff bears. The original antique Steiff bears have now become collector’s items, and hold considerable value.

And in a way, it’s quite bizarre that one small and unassuming act of kindness toward a bear has become one of the most well known facts about Teddy Roosevelt. The legend of ‘Teddy’s Bear’.

I hope you found this PlushHub mini history lesson interesting. I was quite surprised myself, to be happy to spend the time to research this. Can you imagine what the world would be like if these two events in teddy bear history hadn’t occurred? Where would we be without our plush little friends? Would some Japanese stuffed animal become a mainstay in all our homes instead?

Feel free to leave your thoughts below.


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