Two teddy bears celebrate 100th birthday

Sunday, January 27, 2002

NEW YORK -- It's teddy bear's birthday. He's 100 and he's an icon who deserves a big party.

But who gets to blow out the candles?

According to "A Tale of Two Teddies: The First Teddy Bears Tell Their True Stories" (Portfolio Press), two bears, one born in New York City, the other in a small town in Germany, claim to be the original.

"I did a tremendous amount of research," says the book's author and illustrator, Kathleen Bart, "and there really is no definitive answer on who is the first teddy bear."

The bear made by Brooklyn, N.Y., candy store owner Morris Michtom was named Teddy from the start, Bart says.

One morning in 1902 a newspaper cartoon depicting President Theodore Roosevelt, known to everyone as "Teddy," caught his eye. It showed the president refusing to shoot a trapped bear while on a hunting trip.

Michtom had the idea of making a soft stuffed toy bear in honor of Roosevelt, which could be sold at his store. He wrote the president and asked if he could use his name. Michtom claimed he received permission from the White House but then lost the letter, explains Bart.

(The letter sounds like something Roosevelt would write, notes Linda Milano, the assistant director of the Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based Theodore Roosevelt Association, but the letters have never turned up and the story can't be verified.)

By 1904, the teddy bear had become an unofficial mascot of Roosevelt's re-election campaign and Michtom closed his candy company to open the Ideal Toy and Novelty Co. so he could manufacture bears full time.

Which came first?

Meanwhile, Margarete Steiff, who was busy throughout the 1880s and '90s making small felt animal toys in Giengen, Germany, was inspired by her nephew Richard's drawings of bears at the Stuttgart Zoo, according to Bart.

So Margarete and Richard together designed a toy bear made of mohair with shoe buttons for eyes. Eventually all Steiff plush toys would get buttons in their ears, a signature of the Margarete Steiff Toy Co. which still manufactures toys today, with its North American headquarters in Raynham, Mass.

The Steiff bear was introduced to the world at the 1903 Leipzig Toy Fair and an American buyer ordered 3,000 of the plush toys. Once this bear crossed the Atlantic, he, too, became known as teddy.

"A Tale of Two Teddies," recounts the controversy through a friendly debate between the Steiff and Ideal bears and accompanying colored-pencil illustrations. The book is based on historical fact and Bart interviewed the Steiff historian and Michtom's grandson.

"The way we look at it is Margarete Steiff probably made the first stuffed bear and Morris Michtom made the first teddy bear," says Milano of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.

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