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The Real Story Behind the Invention of the Teddy Bear

1900s | August 14, 2018

A teddy bear in the 1950s sits next to its tag explaining its link to President Theodore Roosevelt.

Teddy bears are cute, cuddly stuffed toys that parents give to babies and teenage boys give to their girlfriends. You can win one at the carnival. Heck, you can even make your own teddy bear at a store at the mall. But did you know that the lovable teddy bear was created more than one hundred years ago as after a popular political cartoon aimed at then-President Theodore Roosevelt? The toy teddy bear, that started out as a gag, became a symbol of conservation and sportsmanship. 

Theodore Roosevelt was a Man’s Man

Tough, gritty, rugged, and adventurous, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, overcame a sickly childhood by adopting a strenuous exercise routine that included plenty of time outdoors. He embraced nature and is often considered to be the ‘naturalist president.” As he matured, he viewed as a robust cowboy personality that embodied the ideals of masculinity. Roosevelt was a man’s man. 

Time

Roosevelt was an Avid Hunter

As an outdoorsman, Roosevelt was a hunting enthusiast. He regularly hunted in the U.S. but also traveled to Africa to collect specimens…a fancy way of saying ‘hunt’…to be taxidermied and displayed at the American Museum of Natural History. He is credited with killing 17 lions, 9 hyenas, 11 elephants, 7 cheetahs, and 3 leopards. He also shot 11 black rhinos, an animal that is now teetering on the edge of extinction. 

But Roosevelt Refused to Shoot a Bear

Back to the teddy bear story…On November 14, 1902, Andrew Longino, the governor of Mississippi, invited the then President Roosevelt to join him on a bear hunt outside Onward, Mississippi. Everyone in the hunting party, including Longino, bagged a bear except for Roosevelt. The governor was embarrassed. How would it look if the President was a failure at HIS hunting trip? He wasn’t alone in his feeling. Everyone wanted to make sure the President got his kill. 

Southern Memories

Roosevelt Displayed Sportsmanship

One of Roosevelt’s assistants, a former slave named Holt Collier, captured a bear and tied it to a tree. The hunters beckoned Roosevelt over and offered up the easy kill. Roosevelt was disgusted by the situation. He thought that it was extremely unsportsmanlike to shoot a wild animal that had no means of escape. He refused to shoot the bear and insisted upon its release. Newspapers of the time seized onto the story as evidence of Roosevelt’s compassion and sportsmanship. 

The Event was Satirized in Political Cartoons

Cartoonist Clifford Berryman came across a news article about the event and drew a political cartoon lampooning Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot the defenseless bear. The cartoon ran in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902. It was not the most realistic rendering of the event, though. The bear in Berryman’s cartoon was a small, adorable cub, not a large, imposing bear. Still, it was enough to paint the President as a fair and trusting man. 

A Candy Shop Owner and Stuffed Toy Maker got a Brilliant Idea

Morris Michtom of Brooklyn saw Berryman’s cartoon and got a terrific idea. He and his wife made a stuffed toy bear to give to President Roosevelt. They called it Teddy’s Bear. The stuffed toy was warmly received by the Roosevelt and became a plaything of the President’s youngest son, Quentin. Everyone loved the toy bear so, with President Teddy Roosevelt’s blessing, Michtom sewed up more of the bears to sell to the adoring public. 

Teddy Bears Became Big Business

They were so popular that Michtom soon gave up his candy store and founded his own toy company, Ideal Toys. Teddy Bears became a worldwide hit and they have only gotten more popular as the decades go by. In the U.S., there are more than 200,000 specialty teddy bear stores. Millions of the stuffed animals are sold every year. Teddy Roosevelt’s inability to hunt a bear and his refusal to shoot a captive one spawned a toy revolution and a huge niche in the toy industry. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.