A quick history of teddy bears. Plus: say hi to Steiff!
Over the years, there have been many famous teddy bears in pop culture, and they’re not going away anytime soon (although with variations like the movie Ted, about a grown man and his favorite childhood pal, they’re perhaps a little different than you remembered). Maybe Winnie the Pooh was your favorite, or Paddington or Corduroy. You certainly can’t forget the height of creepy teddy bears – the 1980s – which brought us Care Bears and Teddy Ruxpin. Even our fabric softener gave us (me) nightmares with the “cute” Snuggle Bear. And Gund’s now staple, Snuffles, was put on the shelves for the first time in the ‘80s.
And maybe you already know the story behind the first teddy bear, or the famous cartoon depicting the events. The story goes as so: in 1902, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, our 26th president, famously refused to shoot a defenseless bear. He was on a hunting trip in Mississippi with the state’s governor and many others, and while everyone else had captured an animal, Roosevelt had not. Of course, the President could not walk away from a hunting trip having not hunted, so those he was with captured and tied up a bear for the President to shoot. Roosevelt deemed this “unsportsmanlike,” and turned down the offer (but still requested the injured bear be put down – how’s that for a fairy tale ending). The story was picked up by political newspapers, The Washington Post in particular, accompanied by a Clifford K. Berryman original. What was once a drawing of a fierce black bear, it was edited before print to show a soft, cuddly looking bear – soon dubbed “Teddy’s Bear.”
Here is where the history of the teddy bear splits. Almost all historians believe the story of “Teddy’s Bear” to be the real launching point for the American audience. First, there was a man in America named Morris Michtom who, with his wife, created a stuffed bear after seeing this cartoon to put in his window. Early photos show these bears looking more closely like the cartoon version – softer eyes, shorter muzzle, more similar to what we see now. Michtom went on to found Ideal Novelty and Toy Company (later renamed to Ideal Toy Company, which became defunct by 1997 – the company was best known for the Rubik’s Cube).
Now the odd part: simultaneously, as Michtom was creating his bear, the Steiff corporation was creating theirs. Steiff was founded in 1880 by a woman named Margarete Steiff in Germany. Margarete, bound to a wheelchair due to a childhood bout of polio, made little pincushions in the shape of animals for her friends, but soon found children playing with them instead. Her first animal, which is still part of their legacy today, was an elephant. It was in 1902, when her nephew Richard joined the company after graduating with an art degree, that the teddy bear became part of their collection. By 1907 – a mere 5 years after the first glimpse of a cuddly bear – the company produced just under one million bears – each handmade and each costing almost one month’s full wages for the average person. (You can see one of the earliest Steiff bears, a Growler, here.)
So, yes. Two very different people on two very different continents created the same toy at the same time: the Teddy Bear. But only one company is still around, still making the same Teddy Bears in almost the exact same manner as it did over 100 years ago: Steiff.
To any stuffed animal enthusiast, Steiff is a household name. As mentioned before, the company has been a company since 1880 – almost 135 years. They have made beautiful, high-quality stuffed animals that truly stand the test of time. A quick peek over on eBay and you’ll find incredibly old Steiff teddy bears in wonderful condition – these are the types of stuffed animals your kid could pass down to his kid down to his kid down to his kid, and they’d still be worth some money in the end.
What makes them stand out among the crowd? A true Steiff has a button in his ear, a trademark put into practice around 1904 to authenticate the real Steiffs among the imposters (the teddy bear made famous by Christopher Robin Milne was a JK Farnell teddy bear – outfitted to look similar to a Steiff and, because of this, was one of the many companies that moved the “knopf im ohr” trademark into fruition). A real difference is their stitching – a good tug at the wrong spot could unravel your fluffed up best friend, but with Steiff’s standardized high density seam, no harm will be done. I grew up with a part-time seamstress mother, so I know a good stitch from a bad one, even if I can’t make them myself. These seams are almost seamless, and they make other brands feel like the home ec sewing project you did in middle school (whatever happened to that thing?). Steiff is stuffed to last, so if you’re looking for an heirloom stuffed animal that’s going to look as good as it did 5 or 10 or 30 years ago, you want to look into Steiff.
Magic Beans is one of the very few places you can get yourself a Steiff teddy bear in Boston. They definitely stand out among the crowd, and make beautiful first gifts. Each piece is heavily reinforced, so even those with button eyes are suitable for newborns (they do have a wonderful newborn collection, too). But don’t take my word on how great they are: come into our stores and see for yourself!
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