Brooklyn is justly known as the borough of churches and the rightful home of the Dodgers — but did it also give birth to the Teddy Bear?
Credit for inventing the teddy bear is generally given to Morris Michtom, a Russian immigrant who is said to have opened a candy store at 404 Tompkins Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The name was supposedly based on an incident that occurred when President Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt went hunting in Mississippi in 1902. According to this oft-repeated story, President Roosevelt’s aides or fellow hunters were concerned at his lack of hunting success, so they cornered a bear for him and tied it to a tree. Roosevelt refused to shoot the trapped bear, and the incident was satirized in a political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman which appeared on November 16, 1902 in The Washington Post.
It was this cartoon that allegedly inspired Morris Michtom (or his wife Ruth) to create a stuffed animal toy. Michtom even wrote to the President, the story goes, to obtain his permission to sell his new toy as “Teddy’s bear.” In 1952, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that the Michtom family still had Roosevelt’s letter granting Michtom permission to use his name in their possession (according to the article, Roosevelt said “I don’t think my name is likely to be worth much in the bear business, but you’re welcome to use it”).
An alternative version traces the original teddy bear to Margarete Steiff, a German seamstress who was confined to a wheelchair after contracting polio as a child. An American buyer saw her stuffed bear at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903 and imported 3,000 of them, which ignited a nationwide “teddy bear” fad.
Contemporaneous sources, however, fail to corroborate any of these stories. While Roosevelt’s failure to bag a bear on his 1902 hunting expedition was reported in the Washington Post and the New York Times, neither of these papers made any mention of a tethered bear that Roosevelt refused to shoot (Roosevelt was instead said to have offered the following explanation for his failure to shoot a bear: “Perhaps they were Democratic bears and took to the woods upon my arrival”). And when author Kathleen Bart decided to investigate the origins of the Teddy Bear for a planned children’s book, neither the Roosevelt nor Michtom families were able to find the letter purportedly sent by Roosevelt granting Michtom permission to use his name.
The earliest source I could find discussing the origin of the Teddy Bear appeared in 1907 in the American Stationer. This trade magazine reported that when Roosevelt’s hunting trip was in the news, “a party of New York Society people, desiring to spring something new and unique, said “we will give a bear party.” They asked a German importer to get them some bears, and he ordered samples but they arrived too late for the party. The importer threw them aside and his niece later found them and carried it with her to Atlantic City where it attracted much admiration. Some alert Atlantic City businessmen arranged to have more bears imported and “the bears sold like hotcakes. Then some clever chap named the animals Teddy Bears and the craze started in earnest.”
The “clever chap” who first came up with the name “Teddy Bear” may have been Seymore Eaton, an author and journalist who wrote a series of childrens’ books (first published serially in 1905 newspapers) on the adventures of The Roosevelt Bears, Teddy-B and Teddy-G. When Eaton died in 1916, he was, according to his New York Times obituary, “widely known as the creator of the ‘Teddy Bear’ whose adventures were first celebrated in verse in The New York Times.”
Whatever its true origin, by 1906 a “Teddy Bear” craze was sweeping the country, providing a thriving business for both Michtom (who founded the Ideal Toy Company) and Steiff, as well as a host of imitators, for years to come.