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Object lesson No 60 Teddy bears

In 1902, the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, was in Mississippi trying to sort out a border dispute when he decided to take a break from presidential duties and go shooting in the woods. To the relief of the local wildlife, he had a bad day. He didn't kill a thing, and was just about to go home when one of his aides found a lost bear cub and offered it to him. But Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear, saying it would be unsporting.

The next day a syndicated cartoon depicting the president having mercy on the cub, and captioned "Drawing the line in Mississippi", appeared in newspapers across the US. A New York candy shop owner, Morris Mitchtom, saw the cartoon, asked his wife to make a toy bear to put in the shop window alongside the drawing, and gave him a name: "Teddy's Bear".

Mrs Mitchtom's cuddly creation proved so popular that within a year she and her husband had closed the candy shop and founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, now one of the biggest in the world.

Around the same time, Richard Stieff was working for his aunt's toy company in Germany. They already made stiff-limbed bears, but a visit to the circus inspired him to make a softer version with moveable arms and leg. The heavy, 3ft-high, fierce-looking creature he took to the 1903 Leipzig toy fair had been scaring off customers and he was about to pack up for the day when it caught the eye of an American buyer, who placed an order for 3,000. The world's most famous teddy bear makers were in business, and by 1907 they were selling nearly a million a year, such as the one pictured.

Whether out of a subconscious desire to tame one of nature's fiercest predators, sympathy with Roosevelt's act of kindness, or just because we find them so darn cuddly, millions of children and adults are in the grasp of the teddy bear cult. Arctophiles, as collectors are known, hunt down this subspecies of soft toy, and rare examples fetch a fortune - a 1904 Stieff bear sold for pound;110,000 in 1994.

Generations of children have been entranced by tales of Paddington, Rupert and Pooh. Even snooty fops and rebellious rockers have fallen under their spell - Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited couldn't manage without his Aloysius, and Elvis Presley wanted to be one. But the most ardent arctophile would have to concede that the secret picnics recorded in Bratton and Kennedy's 1932 ditty are, well, bearly believable.

Harvey McGavin


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