Menu
News

US cartoon inspired the creation of teddy bears

A teddy bear mascot sits atop the engine of a German A.E.G. C. IV aircraft, circa 1917. Picture: Australian War Memorial print ID B01863
A teddy bear mascot sits atop the engine of a German A.E.G. C. IV aircraft, circa 1917. Picture: Australian War Memorial print ID B01863

THERE are few toys that are as loved as the teddy bear. Invented more than a century ago, they have been companions to generations of children, but they have also inspired literature and provided soldiers at war with a cuddly link to their family.

The film Christopher Robin, which opened in cinemas this week, is based on the toy bear owned by Christopher Robin Milne, son of author A.A. Milne, and was the inspiration for his father's character Winnie-the-Pooh.

But Christopher's bear owes its origins to an American president.

When US president Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was asked to arbitrate a border dispute between Mississippi and Louisiana in 1902, the governor of Mississippi Andrew H. Longino, hoping to curry favour, also invited him to take part in a bear hunt. Logino knew that Roosevelt was a fan of big-game hunting and had evenwritten a book on his hunting adventures in the wild west.

But when Roosevelt turned up for the hunt he was unable to bag any quarry, so Longino ordered the president's men to capture a bear. They found a cub, ran it to exhaustion with their hunting dogs, clubbed it, then tied it up so the president would be unable to miss. But Roosevelt refused to take a shot, asking that the bear be put down humanely.

Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman depicted the incident showing a cute little bear with a rope around its neck and Roosevelt in the foreground refusing to kill it. The caption read "Drawing the line in Mississippi".

 

The 1902 cartoon showing US president Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt refusing to shoot a small bear.
The 1902 cartoon showing US president Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt refusing to shoot a small bear.

 

The cartoon inspired a Brooklyn candy shop owner, Russian Jewish immigrant Morris Michtom, to create a toy bear to decorate his shop window. He called it "Teddy's bear". Michtom and his wife Rose made stuffed animal toys as a sideline to their sweets business and were soon inundated with requests from customers to buy the bear.

Michtom saw a business opportunity mass producing the bears. Worried he might incur the wrath of the president (who actually hated the nickname Teddy), he sent his original bear to Roosevelt as a gift for his children. He also asked for permission to call his toys Teddy bears. The president doubted his name would help sell the toys but gave his approval nonetheless.

Michtom was so overwhelmed with orders he started the Ideal Toy Company to make them.

Meanwhile, over in Germany Richard Steiff, who apparently was not inspired by the cartoon, had designed a plush toy bear with movable joints. Steiff exhibited his bear at a toy fair in Leipzig in 1903 where an American businessman saw it and ordered 3000, knowing already how popular Michtom's version was back home.

Both Michtom's and Steiff's bears were the first, but soon there were others, including London manufacturer J.K. Farnell in 1906.

By 1914, the teddy bear was one of the most popular toys on the market and a generation of children who had grown up cuddling them, were now headed to war.

During World War I manufacture of the bears in Europe slowed as factories lost workers to recruitment drives or were turned over to war production. Some created special edition bears decked out in soldier's or nurse's uniforms, or in patriotic colours.

 

Author A.A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Winnie, his toy bear, at Cotchford Farm, Hartfield, in 1926.
Author A.A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Winnie, his toy bear, at Cotchford Farm, Hartfield, in 1926.

 

Soldiers were given bears by their sweethearts to remind them of what they were fighting for. Other people handmade bears for fundraising drives or to send to soldiers at the front. Military units used teddy bears as mascots or good-luck charms. Steiff bears were particularly popular among German soldiers, sailors and pilots.

Australian soldiers had their own version of the bear - a stuffed kangaroo. The Australian War Memorial has a toy kangaroo that was the mascot of an Australian Red Cross Hut at the 1st Australian Convalescent Camp at Rouelles, near Le Havre on the Normandy coast.

However, after the war European toy factories went back into full production and teddy bears remained popular.

In 1921 Milne bought a Farnell bear for his son Christopher, who named it Winnie, after a bear he had seen in a Canadian zoo. (The bear, also named Winnie, had been a mascot for a troop of World War I soldiers, one of whom was from Winnipeg.) Milne created a series of stories about the stuffed toy having adventures with a fictionalised version of his son. Milne's books helped make toy bears even more popular.

During World War II teddy bears again went to war and they have been a presence in subsequent wars and peacekeeping missions. In Vietnam, they were handed out by soldiers as gifts to local children. Recently an Australian program called Bears To School was established to teach children about World War I using teddy bears dressed in World War I uniforms.

People can go online to anzacbears.com.au to donate a bear to a school, the proceeds then go to veterans' charities.

 

Topics:  cartoons teddy bears teddy roosevelt toys