How this became this...;History

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Adam Jezard tracks down the story of a 20th century icon

Few world leaders have given their names to small furry objects. The teddy bear, however, owes its name to a president of the United States who loved nature.

Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909, developed an interest in wildlife thanks to the asthma that troubled him as a child. Little was then known about the ailment, and his father had encouraged the young Theodore to get into the open air and exercise rigorously to improve his health. As a result, the future Republican president became a keen walker, rower, climber and horse-rider. He also came to love the wilderness, and the plant and animal life that inhabited it. Roosevelt had even studied to be a naturalist (combining the sciences of botany, biology and geology) before devoting himself to politics and writing.

Not uncommonly for the time, Roosevelt liked to hunt, but in adult life he came to realise that animals such as elk, migrating birds and grizzly bears were becoming rare in parts of the western United States because of the hunting craze and the increasing impact of humans upon the natural world. He was one of the first to fight for the preservation of threatened species, which in turn led to a successful campaign that brought in laws to enforce forest and land conservation. These policies saved Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming from becoming a wasteland by preventing too much tree felling and hunting.

Going on a bear hunt Roosevelt still continued to shoot big game, however, and it was while he was on a bear-hunting expedition along the Mississippi in November 1902 that Teddy Roosevelt became forever linked with the furry creatures. Legend has it that - after much walking, climbing and riding - no bears had been found and the guides, fearing the expedition would be branded a failure, sent out dogs to track down a bear. Early versions of the tale say the black bear they cornered was old and tired. It was caught and tied to a tree so the President could shoot it and have a trophy to take home. But Roosevelt declined, saying it was wrong to kill the old bear for sport. The animal was in such a distressed state, however, that the president ordered it should be put out of its misery.

Newspapers use political cartoonists to dramatise events for their readers and one of these, Clifford K Berryman, heard the story of the bear and drew a cartoon about it for the Washington Post titled "Drawing a Line in the Mississippi". In his first illustration, Berryman drew a large, sorry-looking bear, but when he redrew the sketch for other papers he depicted a small, young bear, which is perhaps why later versions of Roosevelt's meeting with the creature insist it was a young cub that the dogs captured. The cartoon was so popular that Berryman featured the young bear in other drawings of Roosevelt.

Various legends claim to relate how the president's nickname of "Teddy" was given to the toy bear. One says a New York toy-shop owner, Morris Michtom, was inspired by Berryman's cartoon to ask the president if he could call the bears that his wife made and sold in their shop "Teddy's Bears". Roosevelt is supposed to have replied: "I don't think my name will mean much to the bear business, but you're welcome to use it." Michtom went on to found the Ideal Toy and Novelty Company, which became one of the biggest toy firms in the United States.

Others had made toy bears before the Michtoms, however. The German family firm Steiff had been making naturalistic toy bears for quite a while when Richard Steiff, nephew of the firm's founder, Margarete, invented a bear with jointed limbs in 1902. This was exhibited in the States in February 1903, where it failed to stir any enthusiasm. Just a month later, the Steiff bears went on show at the Leipzig Spring Fair and an American importer, George Borgfeldt and Co., allegedly jumping on the popularity of the bear in the Roosevelt story, ordered so many that the Steiff firm called the following five years theBArenjahre - the bear years! Steiff is said to have made the first recognisable teddies and early examples can now cost hundreds of pounds.

Another story about how the teddy got its name says that a caterer at the wedding of Roosevelt's daughter decorated the tables with Steiff bears dressed as fishermen and hunters. Seeing them, a friend asked: "Say, Teddy, to what species do these bears belong?" To which Roosevelt replied: "You really got me there, so I think they must be a new species called Teddy Bears."

Whoever made the first teddy, and however it got its name, it soon became popular all over the world, and it has been made from every conceivable material, from wood and wool to modern materials such as nylon.

The teddy has become a 20th-century icon, especially in literature - where would Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Raymond Briggs's The Bear and all their ilk have come from without it?

Teddies pervade our lives. Most children have at least one and adults give them as tokens of affection and good luck. Their images also adorn keyrings, greetings cards, posters and television series.

In 2002, the teddy will be 100 years old - and all because President Roosevelt refused to kill a defenceless bear for sport. Who would have believed social history could be made of such stuff?


The teddy bear can be a useful device to draw attention to the plight of real bears in threatened habitats. There are seven species in the wild:

* North American brown bears, such as the Kodiak bear and the grizzly.

* The North American black bear, smaller than the brown, and the most common in the world today.

* Asiatic black bears: 50,000 are thought to remain in parts of central Asia, Russia and Japan.

* The white polar bears, which live in the Arctic.

* Sloth bears remain in India and surrounding countries.

* Sun bears live in the mountainous and tropical forest areas of India and South East Asia.

* The spectacled bear, which lives in the mountains of South America.

Most members of the bear family are now listed as endangered species; there are thought to be fewer than 20,000 spectacled bears, and fewer than 30,000 polar bears.

No one knows precisely how many sun and sloth bears still live in the wild but it is believed that there are around 10,000 of each.

The brown or grizzly bear has been wiped out in most parts of Europe and the United States. An estimated 180,000 brown bears, however, survive in remote areas of Russia, Canada and Alaska, and it is reckoned there are between 630,000 and 800,000 North American black bears in Canada, the USA and Mexico.

The North American black bear is not on the endangered list and is still being hunted. Many of the other species are still being killed illegally.

Sources and resources_ Books: The Teddy Bear Book, by Maureen Stanford and Amanda O'Neill (Simon and Schuster)

The Bear Lover's Guide to Britain, by Pat Rush (Pan)

Theodore Roosevelt - A Life, by Nathan Miller (Quill William Morrow)

Websites: The Teddy Roosevelt Association

The Virtual Bear Centre www.bear.orgexhibit.html

Teddy Bears on the Net

The Asian Conservation Program www.jackiewild.comz

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