Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Margarete Steiff, Morris Michtom and Teddy Roosevelt - Hunting Down the Origin of "Teddy Bear"

President Roosevelt in Hunting Costume -
Topeka State Journal (Topeka, Kansas), November 11, 1901, page 7.

The standard American origin-story for the “Teddy Bear” goes something like this:

President “Teddy” Roosevelt was bear hunting near Smedes, Mississippi in September 1902, when he famously refused to shoot a young, helpless bear tied to a tree for him to shoot.  A cartoonist memorialized the event with a cute bear cub character.  Inspired by the cartoon, Morris and Rose Michtom of Brooklyn, New York made a stuffed bear and placed it in the window of their shop.  People liked it, wanted to buy more, and they recognized a business opportunity.  Morris Michtom sent one to President Roosevelt for Christmas 1902, with a letter asking the President’s permission to use his name.  The President agreed, the Michtoms started making and selling bears in early 1903, and it was an “immediate success.”

The rest is history.  Or is it?

Elements of the story are undoubtedly true.  President Roosevelt did have a widely reported hunting misadventure in 1902, and soon afterward political cartoonist Clifford Berryman created a popular, recurring cartoon character of a bear cub as a sidekick to his images of Teddy Roosevelt. 

But other elements of the story appear to be accepted as a matter of faith, without any known contemporary, documentary evidence.  The earliest known suggestion that Morris Michtom “invented” the Teddy Bear, for example, first appeared in widely circulated wire-service reports of his death in 1938.  But curiously, his hometown obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle made no mention of his having created the “Teddy Bear,” even while crediting him as a pioneer in the “unbreakable” doll business, creator of the wildly popular “Shirley Temple Doll” and the founder of one of the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, one of the largest toy companies in the world.   Is the omission telling? Or simply an omission?

The story of their being inspired by Roosevelt’s ill-fated bear hunt and securing President Roosevelt’s personal OK to use the name “Teddy” first appeared in print in 1949.  The source of the story appears to be a toy-industry “White Paper” prepared with the cooperation of the Michtoms’ son, Benjamin, then a Vice-President of the renamed Ideal Toy Company.  Was the story created as part of a marketing campaign or was it actual family lore?

The Michtom-letter story was not the first time someone drew a direct line through Roosevelt’s hunt, Berryman’s cartoon and the origin of the “Teddy Bear.”  Nearly four decades earlier, a similar story connected all three of these elements to a different “Teddy Bear” maker, one with a better-documented connection to the earliest stuffed, plush bears, and a more recognizable name – Steiff:

The Hamburg (Germany) correspondent of Toys and Novelties writes: “When a famous American caricaturist sketched the return of Mr. Roosevelt from a hunting expedition some years ago, showing the ex-president with a dejected and crestfallen little bear in tow, all America was highly amused.  The illustration naturally found its way to Europe and it was not long before now deceased Frau Margarethe Steiff put before the American public a small, very life-like bear, an exact double of the one in the caricature, and this toy, now known all over the world as the ‘Teddy Bear,’ immediately found its way to the heart of the American child.”

Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer, Volume 32, Number 4, February 15, 1910, page 116.

Ms. Steiff’s connection with stuffed, toy bears is well documented, supported by company business records and her diary.[i]  Her nephew Richard designed the first bear, “Bär 55 PB,” in 1902, which is said to be the world’s first plush bear with movable arms and legs.  Margarete was skeptical, but let her nephew show the bear at the Leipziger Spielwarenmesse, the international toy fair in Leipzig, Germany, held in the spring of 1903.  Her gamble paid off when an American buyer placed an order for 3000 of the bears, although the name of the buyer and company they represented have been lost to history.[ii] 

It seems unlikely that President Roosevelt’s ill-fated bear hunt had anything to do with the creation of the first Steiff bear in Germany, although it may have motivated the anonymous American buyer who placed the first large order in 1903.  The coincidence of Steiff creating a desirable bear toy at the precise moment a famous bear hunter was being stalked by a cartoon bear cub in political cartoons may have created the perfect storm. 

It is plausible, I suppose, that the same perfect storm inspired the Michtoms to independently create their own bear at about the same time.  But the oft-repeated narrative that the Michtom’s bear and its clever name were an “immediate success” does not match the written record.  The name “Teddy Bear” does not appear in print in association with stuffed, toy bears until late-1905.  And I have not found any evidence of a universal interest in stuffed bears until 1906.

And in any case, a toy bear carrying a big stick, suggestive of Teddy Roosevelt’s motto, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” was sold at Wannamaker’s department store in Philadelphia as early as 1901.  Whether or not it was called “Teddy” is not known, but the groundwork for the name was already in place more than a year before either Steiff or the Michtoms placed their first “Teddy Bears” on sale in early-1903.
Wannamaker’s advertisement, Cecil Whig (Elkton, Maryland), November 16, 1901, page 10.

Wannamaker’s advertisement, Cecil Whig (Elkton, Maryland), November 16, 1901, page 10.

Christmas 1902

The suggestion that Morris Michtom sent President Roosevelt a stuffed, toy bear for Christmas 1902 is believable.  But even if true, it would not have been unique.  President Roosevelt received several bears for Christmas that year:

President Roosevelt received enough toy bears as Christmas presents to start a small zoo.

Farmington Times and Herald (Farmington, Missouri), January 1, 1903, page 2.

One of those bears, in what may be the earliest reference to Morris Michtom’s bear, reportedly came from New York City:

President Roosevelt had great success hunting bear at the White House Christmas morning.  He started on the trail for the library, where the Christmas presents were assembled, and there he found three miniature bears waiting for him.  They were of three different varieties of the bruin type, in the jungle of Christmas remembrances.

One came from the sunny South, one from the northwest and one from New York, a black, a brown and a grizzly. . . .  These toys in size and appearance were excellent imitations of the living bear.  The one from the northwest was a mechanical or dancing bear, and his performances created much merriment among the members of the household.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1902, page 5.

None of the several newspaper accounts of the gift-bears expressly describes them as stuffed or plush, but the description of them as “excellent imitations of the living bear” suggests that they may have been furry, fuzzy, plush or something along those lines, raising the question of whether there were any such bears before Steiff and Michtom entered the market.

The mechanical bear from the “northwest” could have been something like ones advertised at Wannamaker’s in 1901, or like one shown in cartoon image of a mechanical bear in the Northwest from the same period.  The bear was featured in a story about an Eskimo boy who returns to his village after being rescued at sea, adopted by the sea captain who rescued him, and receiving a conventional American education in New York City.  One of the most prized possessions he brought back with him from the big city was his mechanical bear.  The image shows a bear with a hairy or furry exterior, not unlike a plush “Teddy Bear”:

 Many of these simple marvels he treasured especially, and among them the most wonderful was a mechanical white bear, a toy about 10 inches high. . . .  This bear would crouch on all fours, rise slowly on its hind legs, open its red mouth, roll its eyes and utter a faint, squeaky growl . . . .

“Downfall of a Medicine Man: Wonders Performed by a Bright Boy Who Had Been Rescued By Explorers and Returned to His Tribe,” The Baltimore Sun, November 23, 1902, page 12.

The bear was not merely an element of fiction.  Robert J. Clay received a patent for just such a bear in 1872,[iii] and similar references to similar bears appeared in print several times before either the Steiff’s or Michtom’s more docile bears would have been available for purchase in 1903.

The third bear, from the “sunny South,” most likely refers to the one sent to the White House by little Edna Orum of St. Louis, Missouri.  The text of her original letter and Roosevelt’s response appeared in her hometown newspaper a few weeks after Christmas:

East St. Louis, Dec. 23, 1902.

Mr. Roosevelt.

Dear President – Because I have heard so much talk about that you had no luck in hunting bears, I thought I would send you one, and I hope you will like the black one I send you for a Christmas present.  I wish you all in the White House a Merry Christmas, and wish that I could take the bear there myself, but I am only a little girl 10 years old.  From your friends,

Edna Orum

In a few days she received the following reply:

White House. Washington, Dec. 26 1902.

My Dear Little Friend – I thank you very much for the toy bear.  My children will appreciate it far more than if I had succeeded in getting a bear myself.  It was very nice of you to send it.  Sincerely yours,

Theodore Roosevelt.

The letter from the President is typewritten, but it is signed by him.

St. Louis Post Dispatch, January 26, 1903, page 3.

A hard copy of Roosevelt’s response, from an archive maintained by the Theodore Roosevelt Center, substantiates the contemporaneous account.

Roosevelt letter to Edna Orum, Theodore Roosevelt

But, of course, the lack of documentation for the bear from New York does not disprove the Michtom claim.  As Dr. John Gable, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association explained to the New York Times in 2002, Roosevelt “sometimes dictated . . . and frequently handled his own correspondence. ‘We don't know how many letters he wrote by hand,’ Dr. Gable said. ‘If he wrote this by hand, there would be no copy.’”[iv]  But still, the lack of documentary evidence from either the Michtom’s records or the National Archives is curious in light of similar correspondence, of nearly the same subject matter, from the same Christmas season. 

The Michtom “Legend”

Another strike against the Michtom claim is that Morris MIchtom, himself, does not appear to have openly claimed or been known for inventorship during his lifetime. 

When Morris Michtom died, his hometown newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, remembered him as an early “Teddy Bear” maker, but not its inventor.  He was remembered as an inventor and creator of another toy fad, but not the inventor or originator of the “Teddy Bear” fad:

Morris Michtom, 68, dean of the doll industry in this country and originator of the “Shirley Temple doll,” died yesterday in his home . . . .  He had been a resident of Brooklyn for nearly 40 years.

Mr. Michtom, who was born in Russia, came to the United States in 1889.  He was penniless, and after trying several occupations started the Ideal Novelty & Toy Company in Brooklyn in 1903.  At first the concern made stuffed animals, including the “Teddy Bear,” but later turned to the manufacture of dolls.  Mr. Michtom was responsible for the manufacture of the first “unbreakable” doll in America.

Following his first successes in this field, he continued to create revolutionary changes in the industry and introduced such improvements as sleeping-eyed dolls and rubber-jointed dolls.  A few years ago he saw Shirley Temple in one of her first pictures and conceived the idea of making a doll in her likeness.  Today the success of the Shirley Temple doll is well known.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 22, 1938, page 9.

Shirley Temple with Shirley Temple Doll, Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa), December 25, 1935, page 20.

The obituary went into great detail about Michtom’s charitable works, board memberships, and civic engagement.  He was a large contributor to the American Ort Federation, the Hebrew Immigrants Aid Society, the Palestine National Fund, the Jewish Workers National Alliance, the Workmen’s Circle and Beth-El Hospital.  He was a member of the board of directors of the Toy Manufacturers Association of America, member of the board of H. I. A. S., the New York Council of the Jewish National Fund, the National Labor Campaign for Palestine and the Beth-El Hospital, and was active in many other civic organizations.  His daughter was President of the American Women’s Ort Federation. 

In other words, Morris Michtom was a well-respected, successful lion of the community, someone whose achievements and accomplishments were well known and well documented, someone who had risen from operating newsstands and cigar stores in New York City and Brooklyn[v] to running one of the largest toy companies in the world.  And yet, on the day he died, his local newspaper did not find it necessary or appropriate to mention his invention of the “Teddy Bear,” perhaps the single most successful innovation in children’s toys of the twentieth century.  Was this omission simply an oversight or is it indicative of an underlying truth?

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 22, 1938, page 9.

Outside of Brooklyn, the wire-services gave his connection to the “Teddy Bear” a different spin.  Most versions of his obituary skipped his better-documented accomplishments, focusing instead on the more entertaining, (and perhaps less truthful?) “Teddy Bear” claim.  The Associated Press, for example, called him the “Teddy Bear Inventor”:

New York July 21 (AP) – Morris Michton, 68, Russian immigrant doll maker whose teddy bear was the childhood joy of millions of Americans, died at his Brooklyn home today after a long illness. . . .

When he started his business the majority of American childrens dolls came from abroad, chiefly Germany.  The teddy bear, his first creation, became an immediate success.

The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), July 22, 1938, page 9.

Did the wire-services misunderstand the original Brooklyn Daily Eagle piece?  Did they misconstrue the original piece, whether intentionally or unintentionally?  Or were the wire-services right?  Did the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporters who knew so much about Morris Michtom’s charitable and civic works simply overlook what would have been, if true, his greatest, longest lasting contribution to pop-culture?

If it was a mistake (intentional or otherwise) Morris Michtom was not the only person to be credited with inventing the teddy bear during the period.   In November 1940, a flurry of articles made the dubious claim that recently deceased Chicago clothing manufacturer, Theodore Bear, had invented the teddy bear.  Theodore Bear was a creative and inventive businessman.  He was reportedly the first clothing manufacturer to use electric sewing machines to make children’s clothing.  But it seems unlikely that he invented the “Teddy Bear,” at least not the toy.  Two decades earlier, Theodore Bear was believed to have invented “Teddy Bear” lingerie, now more commonly known as a “teddy.”  Perhaps that’s what confused Theodore Bear’s obituary writers.

[For more detail on the life and career of Theodore Bear, see my earlier post, "Teddy Bears" and "Teddies" - the Surprisingly Literal Etymology of "Teddies" Lingerie.]
The Michtoms’ story is further complicated by variations in the story, as later told by Morris Michtom’s son Benjamin to different reporters at various times.  Although the gist of the story remained the same, the wording of President Roosevelt’s response varies in significant, arguably surprising ways, given that the President’s one-line response played such a momentous role in both their fortunes and the history of the toy industry. 

In 1949, an article said to be based on a toy-industry survey “completed for Ben Michtom, vice-president of the Ideal Novelty & Toy Co.” gave Roosevelt’s response as:

“I don’t think the name’s likely to be worth much in the bear business,” Roosevelt wrote back, “but you’re welcome to use it.”
Indiana Gazette(Indiana, Pennsylvania), August 16, 1949, page 26.    

A few months later, the newspaper columnist Whitney Bolton published a version said to have been heard from Benjamin Michtom in person:

He got longhand answer in a week: “Dear Michtom: I can’t imagine who would buy your Teddy Bear, but if you think they would by all means go ahead.  Cordially, Theodore Roosevelt.”

The Lincoln Star (Nebraska), December 7, 1949, page 8.

Three years later, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Teddy Bear,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a version similar to the August 1949 version:

Michtom sent one of the toy bears to Roosevelt, along with a letter asking permission to call it the “Teddy Bear.”  Back came a reply on White House stationery saying: “I don’t think my name is likely to be worth much in the bear business, but you’re welcome to use it.” . . . The original letter and first Teddy Bear are still in the possession of the Michtom family.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (New York), November 16, 1952, page 3.

But although this 1952 article reported that the family was still in possession of the original letter, there is no indication that the original is still in existence, and I have not seen any published accounts by or about anyone who has actually seen the letter.

Three decades later, Benjamin repeated a similar story with slightly altered text, but this time with a new, demonstrably false, assertion about Roosevelt’s lack of a typewriter in 1902:

The President of the United States – he didn’t have a typewriter then – wrote out a letter in longhand to my father” recalled Michtom’s son Benjamin, 76, of Harrison, N. Y.  The letter said; “I don’t think my name is worth much for the toy bear cub business, but you are welcome to use it.”

Fort Lauderdale News (Florida), January 1, 1978, page 11H (130).

Was his comment about the typewriter an innocent mistake by someone unfamiliar with the history of writing machines in the White House?  Or an intentional ruse to justify the lack of evidence in the Roosevelt archives?  Was it part of a continuing ploy to retain the marketing power of their association with the origin of “Teddy Bears”?  Or was it an innocent mistake by an aging man four decades removed from his father’s death and whose age was the same as the “Teddy Bear” (76 in 1978)?

We are asked to believe that one of the world’s biggest toy companies had in its possession an original letter from President Roosevelt documenting the moment the “Teddy Bear” industry and name were born, and documenting the event that launched the Michtoms rise from mom-and-pop store to global toy giant, somehow mislaid the letter.  It is possible, I suppose, but if that were true, one might expect to see an explanation or justification for the loss at some point, accounts that are missing from the record, at least as far as I can see. 

An early newspaper account of Morris Michtom’s toy company also raises questions about the extent of his connection to the origin of the “Teddy Bear.”  In 1915, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle profiled a local company experiencing unexpected growth as a result of a competitive advantage over Germany as a result of the early stages of the “European War,” later known as World War I. 

Eight years ago [(1907)] the nearest approach to dolls made in this country were the Teddy Bears and rag dolls.  Virtually the only dolls available were German bisque dolls.  Then the Brooklyn company decided to take a try at the manufacture of unbreakable character dolls, dolls which wouldn’t break at the least blow, dolls with real children’s faces.  The services of chemists were secured to provide a formula for an unbreakable head, and I. A. Rommer, secretary of the company, got busy devising machinery for the manufacture of dolls.  The start was on a small scale, with only a few hands.  And now the concern has grown to the point where it is one of the largest doll factories in the country, employing over 200 persons.

Morris Michtom, president of the concern, is enthusiastic over the future of the doll-making industry in the United States.

“This war is giving us the chance we need,” he said; “not so much in cutting off the supply of German dolls, for there is still an ample supply in the country, with more coming that were held up at the beginning of the war, but in making the doll buyers realize that before the end of the war their foreign supply will be gone, and that they had better discount that event by taking advantage of the domestic supply.

“Our dolls are better than the foreign ones, anyway, continued Mr. Michtom. . . . “[Y]ou can’t break these doll heads with anything short of a sledge hammer. . . . And you know how fragile the German and Austrian bisque dolls are.  You can’t give one to a baby.”

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (New York), August 29, 1915, page 12.

The entire article is silent on Morris Michtom’s earlier connection to “Teddy Bears,” which would be surprising if Morris Michtom had then been considered the inventor of the “Teddy Bear” industry; and doubly surprising as Germany was considered the primary source “Teddy Bears,” something that would have dovetailed nicely into the subject matter of the article.  

Even when the “Teddy Bear” fad was in its infancy, Steiff bears from Germany were generally considered the real thing, whereas American bears were referred to as cheap, inferior imitations.  If Morris Michtom had invented the “Teddy Bear” in the United States and his invention had been an “immediate success,” one might expect that his bears would have been considered the original and best, and American patriotic feelings might have elevated them over foreign invaders, even if inferior. 

But several of the early “Teddy Bear” origin stories are consistent with the official, well-documented Steiff party line about German origins of the toy in 1902, with the first big American order in early-1903. 

The Teddy bear is a German product.  The real article is made in the factories of Madam Steif and is called the Steif bear.  A new York importing firm started the Teddy bear to this country.  He placed them in the great department stores of the east, and named them after our bear killing president, and they took with the people, the demand immediately growing fast and furious.

The Holt County Sentinel (Oregon, Missouri), December 20, 1907, page 1.

The staple article this Christmas will still be the Teddy Bears, which has been a conquerer all over America.  An inferior grade of Teddy Bears are made in United States and England, the better grade being made in Germany.

It was in Germany that a poor widow lady, who is now worth several millions, made the first Teddy Bear, without having a thought of Roosevelt in her mind.  It remained for a wily American, who chanced along, to recognize the possibilities.  He gave her a contract for a number of them; now she is running six factories night and day.  In the States there are said to be at least thirty factories meeting the demand some of them keeping a real young bear as a model.

The Bookseller and Stationer (Montreal, Canada), Volume 23, Number 12, page 31.

Fabrics Fancy Goods & Notions, Volume 41, Number 5, May 1907, page 35.

A curious fact worth mentioning in this connection is that American manufacturers have not been able to imitate these fuzzy bears successfully up to the present time.  All the artistic ones come from abroad.

The Courier (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), December 1, 1907, page 14.
Fabrics Fancy Goods & Notions, Volume 40, July 1906, page 26.

Our Teddy Bears are made of imported plush and furnished with voices.  Cannot be distinguished from the European article and at prices 25 per cent. lower . . . .

The Bookseller and Stationer (Montreal, Canada) Volume 23, Number 12, page 31.
It is possible that Morris and Rose Michtom created their first bear independently, coincidentally at about the same time Richard and Margarete Steiff made theirs.  But one aspect of the standard Michtom narrative is, in my opinion, demonstrably wrong.  Typically, the various retellings recite something along the lines of, “they put the bear in their window, people liked it, they got permission to use Roosevelt’s name, they put them on public sale, and it was 'an immediate success' and the rest is history.”  But there is a nearly three-year gap between when the Michtoms would have first sold their bear to the public and when the name “Teddy Bear” first appears in print, as the name of a stuffed bear toy. 

Just a few months after the earliest example in print, the popular “Roosevelt Bears” series of cartoons appeared with lead characters “Teddy B.” and “Teddy G.”  By the summer of 1906, the “Teddy Bear” craze was in full swing on the boardwalks of the seaside resorts along the East Coast.  “Teddy Bear” was everywhere.

But what happened between the spring of 1903 and the Christmas shopping season of 1905?  Did the Michtoms experience low-level success that helped them grow their company while remaining under the radar?  There are very few references to stuffed, toy bears between early-1903, when both the Steiffs and Michtoms are said to have placed their bears on sale, and late-1905, when the name “Teddy Bear” first appears in print.

Early Stuffed, Toy Bears

Realistic “wooly bears” of unknown provenance were available for Christmas shoppers in London in December 1903:

After a tour of toyland, as it is represented this Christmastide, one has a kind of haunting suspicion that, with the best intentions in the world, we are really robbing our children of that most blessed gift of youth – the power of “make believe.” . . . Their trains and their signals actually work, their dolls talk, their clocks tick, their wooly bears growl . . . . what is there in the wide world that any small boy or girl can “make believe” is not what it seem?

The Baltimore Sun (Maryland), December 29, 1903, page 8.

Margarete Steiff exhibited her “toy animals and joint dolls” at the St. Louis World’s Fair that ran from April 30 through December 1, 1904.[vi]  

New-fangled stuffed animals from Germany, including bears, were available for purchase in St. Louis before Christmas of 1904, but not under the name “Teddy Bear”:

St. Louis is now, one of the capitals of Toyland.  Toys by the trainload have been sent here from the ends of the earth, so that Santa Claus may make selections to suit all tastes of all children in the city and the region roundabout. . . . Surely the wild beasts of the jungle and the meek flocks from the farm have been well fed since last Christmas.  It used to be that a toy sheep was the size of a live mouse and a toy horse was no bigger than a live terrier.  But now the toy animals are of heroic mold.  There are elephants and lions and tigers and bears and horses and pigs and dogs and all of them are big enough and tame enough to be ridden. . . . They come from Germany, do the stuffed animals, mostly, and the prices have kept pace with the growth of the animals.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 16, 1904, page 3.

At about the same time, the son of Clifford Berryman, the cartoonist who immortalized President Roosevelt’s tragic bear hunt (the bear was tortured and killed, just not by the President) slept with his own “fuzzy toy bear” – not a “Teddy Bear,” as one might expect to see if the name were in common use at the time.

Mr. Berryman’s ursine trade mark has so identified him in the eyes of the world with the bear industry that admirers known and unknown deluge him with bears of all sorts and conditions from all over the country. . . .  Young James Thomas Berryman – he is the namesake of his grandfather in Woodford county, Ky. – goes to sleep best with a fuzzy toy bear snuggled close in his chubby embrace.

The Times Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana), December 4, 1904, part 3, page 11.

By Christmas 1905, stuffed, toy bears were becoming popular in England, but not as “Teddy Bears”:

[W]here the needs of very young children have to be considered it is a notable year for animals made of soft fabrics and lightly stuffed.  Bears are perhaps in greatest demand.  “Polar bears or grizzly bears,” the shop assistant told me, “everybody wants bears.  There is a guinea bear over there – the last we have, and that is sold.  I have been asked for one like it three times in an hour.” 

The Manchester Guardian (England), December 20, 1905, page 7.

Bears were being sold for Christmas in the United States at the same time, sometimes under the name “Johnny Bear,” after a popular cartoon bear cub character that had been around since 1900.[vii]

Pittston Gazette (Pittston, Pennsylvania), December 18, 1905, page 13.

"Johnny Bear," Ernest Seton-Thompson, Lives of the Hunted, New York, Scribners, 1901.

The earliest known reference to a “Teddy” bear (by that name) in print appeared the same season[viii]:

“Teddy” bears holding little cubs in their arms like real mothers are the latest arrivals; be sure to see them; see all other things as they come along, but most are already here.

Syracuse Herald, November 14, 1905, page 7.

The long delay between Christmas 1902, when the Michtoms are supposed to have received permission to sell their “Teddy Bears, and the first appearance of the name, “Teddy Bear,” in print, calls into question the stock characterization of the Michtoms’ “Teddy Bear,” under that name, as an “immediate success.”  And even if it were true that the Michtoms did place “Teddy Bears” on sale in early-1903, the name was not particularly remarkable, surprising or original. 

Early “Teddy” Bears, Real and Fake

Two actual bears named “Teddy” marched at Roosevelt’s first inauguration as Vice President under President McKinley in 1901, nearly two years before his ill-fated hunting trip to Mississippi.[ix]  Roosevelt had already been famous for his bear-hunting exploits for more than a decade at the time.[x]  Later the same year, and still more than a year before the Mississippi hunting trip, the Bronx Park Zoo displayed a bear referred to in the press as, “’Teddy Roosevelt’ the Terror of the New York Zoo.”[xi]
The Washington Times (Washington DC), August 4, 1901, Part 2, page 4.

In early 1903, at about the same time the Michtoms (it is said) would have started selling their bears in Brooklyn, a group of former “Rough Riders” in Arizona tried to donate a bear they called “’Teddy,’ the bear” to the Washington Zoo. [xii]

As noted earlier, a mechanical toy bear carrying a “big stick” was offered for sale at Wannamaker’s department store in November 1901.  But of course, a stick-wielding mechanical bear is not quite as comforting as a cute, cuddly, plush bear cub, a lesson poor, little Richard Henderson, 10, of Philadelphia, learned the hard way on Christmas morning 1904.

The child’s parents had purchased a quantity of toys as a surprise for him, among them a small brown bear which walked on its hind legs, holding a stick back of its neck.  When the boy awoke yesterday morning he saw the bear walking along the edge of his bead.

He screamed with fright and his parents rushed into the room and found him in convulsions.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 26, 1904, page 12.

At President Roosevelt’s second inauguration as President in March 1905, street vendors sold “Teddy’s bear” buttons[xiii] and wind-up, mechanical “dancing” bears, referred to as “Teddy’s Bears.”[xiv]  When I wrote an earlier piece about the history of “Teddy Bear,” I considered it likely that these dancing bears were cast-iron dancing bears, descriptions of which date to at least 1902.  But in light of the several references to two or three other types of larger, possibly furry, mechanical bears, they may have been more like “Teddy Bears” than I originally thought. 

In April and May 1904, the Pettijohn company used cartoon bear cub characters they called “Petti-Johnnys” in advertisements for their hot breakfast cereal, “Pettijohn’s Flaked Breakfast Food.”  The name “Petti-Johnny” played off the name of the company, and may also have been an allusion to Ernest Seton-Thompson’s popular “Johnny Bear” cartoon character.

 “The Petti-Johnnys plow for Pettijohn wheat.”

Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, New York), April 29, 1903, page 6 (one of several advertisements with the same characters and name).

But in September 1904, Pettijohn’s new ad campaign changed the bears’ names to “Pettibear” and “Cub.”  The name played off the company’s name and appears to rhyme with “Teddy Bear,” raising the question of whether the name coincidentally rhymed with what would later become the standard name for stuffed, plush toy bears, or was an intentional allusion to a name that was already in existence? 

“Bub and the Cub and Pettibear gazed at [the pears] longingly” (a panel from one of at least two separate comic-strip advertisements with the same characters with the same names).

Munseys Magazine, Volume 31, Number 6, September 1903.

Based on such a small sample-size, it is hard to say.  But at nearly the same time, crunchy Post Grape-Nuts cereal used the name “Johnny Bears” in an advertisement that might be read as a response to the cooked, presumably mushy Pettijohn Flakes.   

“Gone to Bear Heaven by the Mushy Food Route.  
Some little Johnny bears ate too freely of pasty, undercooked oats and wheat . . . .”

 St. Paul Globe (Minnesota), September 2, 1903, page 3.

Michtom’s Bears

But even if the Michtoms were not the first or only originators of the “Teddy Bear,” the toy or the expression, it does not necessarily mean that their family lore is completely flawed.  It is entirely possible that Roosevelt’s bear hunt and Berryman’s cartoon bear inspired them to create their first bear, give one to the President, and eventually make and sell more bears as demand increased.

And whether or not the Michtoms started precisely when and how their son claimed four decades later, they did operate a “Teddy Bear” manufacturing firm in Brooklyn at least as early as 1907 where, presumably, they made some of the cheap, inferior, American bears complained of in the press.  But despite the success of the “Teddy Bear” industry in 1907 (or perhaps precisely because of their success), they faced labor trouble.

A strike for higher wages took the stuffing out of the industry:


New York, Sept. 4. – The first strike in the Teddy bear trade has occurred in this city.  A strike of Teddy bear makers took place yesterday in the factory of the Bruin Manufacturing company.  Only the stuffers quit work, the leg, arm, trunk and head artists refusing to strike in sympathy.  The strike was against a reduction of prices paid to the stuffers for piece work.

The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), September 4, 1907, page 1.

Teddy Bear Stuffer (undated image from the Library of Congress).
Apparently, the “boy stuffers” had been switched from piece work to a salary at their request, which resulted in reduced production, after which they were switched back to piece work against their will.[xv]

But nevertheless the strike had legs, as the President refused to intervene, despite his obvious personal connection to the conflict.

The President has steadily refused to intervene in the telegraph dispute, but how could he possibly resist an appeal to step in and save the teddy bear industry?

The Times-Democrat (New Orleans), September 7, 1907, page 6.

Two months later, in what is the earliest contemporary documentation of the Michtom’s “Teddy bear” factory I have seen, the Michtoms were swept up in the crisis – this time the strike cut more deeply.

Strike at Skin Toy Factory Results in Row on Streets.

NEW YORK, November 10. – There is trouble in the Teddy bear factory in Brownsville, and as a result three young men were arrested this morning for fighting in the street.  The factory where the little skin toys are made has been in a turmoil since Wednesday, when all the stuffers and cutters went out on strike, because the boss refused to let them unionize.

TheTimes Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), November 11, 1907, page 2.

Lizzie Dobkin . . . and Benjamin Pinkers . . . were . . . charged with assault, having interfered with two other persons, it is alleged, while on their way to work at the Ideal Novelty Company, which makes a specialty of the manufacture of Teddy bears, whose employes are now upon strike. . . .

The strike began a few days ago, when the employer discharged a girl, partly because she did very little work and partly because she was trying to organize a union.  One hundred and twenty men and women went out.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 12, 1907, page 1.

Teddy Bear Cutters (undated image from the Library of Congress).
Cooler heads prevailed and they were all back at work, along with some of the strike-breakers who retained their jobs, a few weeks later. 

Union Says Strike Breakers Miss the Half Human Expression

New York, Nov. 27. – The Teddy Bearmakers’ union, the latest on the list of labor organizations, has decided to make a demand for the closed shop in the Teddy Bear trade, now that Christmas is coming on.  They started with the firm of Michton & Co., which has a factory in Brooklyn.  The company began to hire strike breakers, but the trade being a comparatively new one, according to the strikers, they could not get enough competent men.

According to the union, it requires workmen of an artistic temperament to make Teddy Bears with the half-human expression on their faces that they are supposed to wear, and the strike breakers missed the expression.

The Wichita Beacon (Kansas), November 27, 1907, page 6.

Finished Teddy Bears (undated image from the Library of Congress).

So was Morris Michtom really a friend of the workers as the first manufacturer to contract with the Teddy Bearmakers’ Union?  Perhaps not.

Eight years later, Morris Michtom would tell a reporter that he had been in the “unbreakable” doll business for the past eight years.  And nine years later, Michtom’s Ideal Novelty and Toy Compny would end up on the wrong side of another strike by another newly-formed union:

 What promises to be a general strike among the toy and doll makers of Manhattan and Brooklyn began today when 200 employees of the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company at 273-187 Van Sinderen avenue, walked out, demanding recognition of the newly formed Stuffed Toy and Doll Makers Union. . . .  Morris Michstrom, president of the company, said this morning that he would close up the shop rather than concede to the [demands].

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 22, 1916, page 4.

On the following day, it became a general strike.  The wartime economics of the doll industry were playing out exactly as Morris Michtom predicted in 1915, giving his workers the leverage to strike:

With the season for making Christmas dolls approaching and with few dolls coming from Europe to stock Santa Claus’s pack, the 1,800 members of the Stuffed Toy and Doll Makers’ Union went on strike yesterday.  The workers, more than half of whom are women, quit work at 10 o’clock yesterday morning and went to Astoria Hall . . . and spent the afternoon dancing.  They demand shorter hours, longer luncheon time, and more pay, as well as recognition of the union.

The New York Times, June 23, 1916, page 14.

It’s only speculation, but the circumstances suggest that Michtom might have abandoned the manufacture of “Teddy Bears” in favor of dolls to avoid dealing with the union.  If not, I apologize for casting aspersions.  But he does seem to have operated a non-union doll-making business for nine years beginning shortly after entering into a contract with the Teddy Bearmakers’ union, and the 1915 article about his doll-making business was completely silent on any connection to “Teddy Bears.”

Or perhaps he abandoned the trade in 1909 when the entire industry is said to have tanked (unless it was just written as a joke):

Sullivan County Record (Jeffersonville, New York), July 8, 1909, page 1.

I have been unable to find any additional information about Michtom or Ideal’s connection to “Teddy Bears” after the Teddy Bearmakers’ strike of 1907.  But the Teddy Bearmakers remained active, with or without Michtom.  They took part in a “Socialist” May Day parade in New York City in 1913.[xvi] They went on strike four weeks later.[xvii]  And in 1916, the Teddy Bearmakers went on strike at the same time that the new Stuffed Toy and Doll Makers Union went on strike against Morris Michtom’s doll-making business.  But in no case were there reports of a specific connection between the Teddy Bearmakers and either Michtom or Ideal.

During the same period, none of the references to Morris Michtom and/or the Ideal Novelty and Toy company relate to “Teddy Bears.”  In 1910, Morris Michtom obtained a patent for a cold-weather muff in the shape of a doll, In 1912, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company was enjoined from selling a knock-off quacking duck toy[xviii]  and filed articles of incorporation in Brooklyn.[xix]  But none of those reports  made reference to company’s connection to “Teddy Bears.”

In later years, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company became primarily known for various models of “unbreakable” plastic dolls.

“Flossie Flirt,” the original rolling eyes doll – 1924:

The “Shirley Temple” doll, the original celebrity promotional doll – 1935:

Betsy Wetsy, the original bottle-fed, diaper-wetting doll – 1937:

In 1952, in conjunction with the celebration of the Golden Anniversary of the Teddy Bear, Ideal again distributed the “story of the teddy Bear, as told by Toy Guidance Council,” first published three years earlier in 1949.  They also claimed to be the largest manufacturer of “Teddy Bears” in the world.

To celebrate the occasion as the world’s most popular toy, a New York manufacturer, Ideal Toy Corporation, is bringing out a “golden Teddy Bear” for sale this Christmas. . . .

Today, Ideal Toy Corporation claims to be the nation’s largest manufacturer of Teddy Bears.

The Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), November 30, 1952, page 9.

The Toy Guidance Council was still celebrating the golden anniversary more than a year later, with an image of an Ideal bear.
The Kane Republican (Kane, Pennsylvania), December 3, 1953, page 29.

That same year, Ideal scored a licensing deal with the United States government to market “Smokey Bear,” giving the Toy Guidance Council another opportunity to go the full-Michtom, complete with the bear hunt, cartoon, and letter to Roosevelt.

With special permission from Congress, 1953’s official teddy bear will be “Smokey,” symbol of fire prevention for the U. S. Forest service.  Before the end of the year over 60,000 “Smokey” bears, bedecked with a ranger hat, trousers and red shovel, will be in the hands of youngsters from coast to coast.

Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana) December 12, 1953, page 30.

And yet, the original letters to and from Roosevelt have never been made public, raising the question of whether the story is merely a cynical marketing ploy concocted by Ideal and the Toy Guidance Council, a son’s sentimental vision of a father’s early start in business, or factual family history.  You be the judge. 

For my part, I am unconvinced.  I acknowledge that the Michtoms may well have been inspired by the President’s bear hunt and subsequent cartoon bear cub, and that they may have named the bear “Teddy Bear” or “Teddy’s Bear.”  The report that President Roosevelt received a bear from New York for Christmas 1902 is consistent with the claim, but the lack of contemporary evidence weighs against the claim, particularly in light of evidence related to another bear received at the same time.  The Michtom’s claim that they still had President Roosevelt’s response in their possession five decades later, yet never saw fit to display the original or a facsimile, is also suspicious, particularly in light of the importance of the letter to the family, the business and the history of toys, generally.  The similarity of the Michtoms’ early bears to the “original,” more respected, better-documented, and earlier Steiff bears, also suggests that the Michtoms’ bears might have been a cheaper, inferior knock-off of another original, and not the originals themselves.  I am also struck by the absence of “Teddy Bears” in the 1915 article about Morris Michtom’s wartime advantage over German doll makers, and in his hometown obituary.

I believe that Michtoms may well have decided to name their bear “Teddy,” whenever they made their first one, but I doubt that their decision was a significant factor in the name becoming standard.  The name was already in use for several actual bears before Roosevelt’s Mississippi bear hunt, based on the long-time association between Roosevelt and bears, generally.  And in any case, there was nearly a three year gap between when the Michtoms are said to have first put their bear on sale and the first known use of “Teddy Bear,” for a stuffed, plush bear toy, in print.

Ideal’s Near-Miss

But whether or not Morris and Rose Michtom originated the Teddy bear, Benjamin Michtom missed out on creating his own revolutionary toy.  He passed on a “Marilyn Monroe” doll three years before Mattel scored big with Barbie.

In 1956, Ideal broke the mold of baby and toddler dolls, displaying a prototype of a physically maturing, teenaged doll, designed by the doll sculptor, Bernard Lipfert.  Lipfert’s granddaughter later described “Revlon” as one of the first “dolls with boobs.”[xx]

Before they gave it its name, Ideal described the prototype as a toned-down, “Marilyn-Like” doll:

The Marilyn Monroe-type dollie doesn’t exactly follow the famous Monroe dimensions of 37- 23½ - 37½. 

“We thought that might look a little too sexy,” [Benjamin] Michtom said, “so we toned the dimensions down to the scale equivalent of 33-25-33½.”

. . . The toy manufacturer, whose father, Mortimer Michtom, made the world’s first Teddy bear, thinks there’s nothing wrong with little girls wanting to look like their teen-age sisters.

Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio), September 20, 1956, page 27.

Two years later, Ideal disclosed that it had originally considered a more mature bombshell “Marilyn Monroe” doll:

Melvin Helitzer, advertising director, Ideal Toy Corp., told the Sales Promotion Executives Club of New York, “Ideal makes dolls which talk, walk, cry, wet and blow their noses, but recently we were approached with the idea of making a Marilyn Monroe doll.  After a good deal of thought, we decided against it.  Nobody could figure out what the doll should do.”

Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), February 18, 1958, page 5.

Ideal may not have known what to do with a physically mature doll, but Mattel did.  Mattel put their first “Barbie” dolls on sale in 1959.  The rest is history.

Mattel’s “Barbie” as Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Hollywood Legends Series, 1997.

[iii] Robert J. Clay, U. S. Patent 131,849, October 1, 1872.
[iv] “Unraveling the Great Teddy Bear Mystery,” Marcelle S. Fischler, New York Times, Long Island Journal (online), March 24, 2002.
[v] In 1894, Morris Michtom placed a “paper stand and route for sale,” with a business address at 305 East 24th Street on Manhattan.  In 1895, “Morris Michton [(sic)]” was awarded a license to operate two sidewalk newsstands across the street at 437 and 438 Second Avenue. Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen of New York City, Volume 219 (1895:3), page 167.  In 1897, he still operated a newsstand at 437 2d Avenue (apparently on Manhattan). Wilson’s Business Directory of New York City – 1897, page 699. In 1899, he was listed as a “cigar dealer,” with a store at 404 Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn. Trow’s Business Directory of the Boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens – 1899, page 94.
[vi] Frederick Skiff, Official Catalogue of Exhibitors, Universal Exposition, Saint Louis, The Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, 1904, page 91.
[viii] Identified by Sam Clements, and posted on the American Dialect Society ADS-Listserve message board in 2009; the same ad also appeared on November 14 (Syracuse Herald, November 14, 1905, page 7) and 18 (Post Standard (Syracuse, New York), November 18, 1905).
[ix]  See my earlier post, Teddy Roosevelt and his Bears – a Grizzly History and Etymology of “Teddy Bear” (citing, Watauga Democrat (Boone, North Carolina), March 14, 1901, page 1).
[xi] See my earlier post, Teddy Roosevelt and his Bears – a Grizzly History and Etymology of “Teddy Bear” (citing, The Washington Times (Washington DC), August 4, 1901, Part 2, page 4).
[xii] See my earlier post, Teddy Roosevelt and his Bears – a Grizzly History and Etymology of “Teddy Bear” (citing, The Spokane Press (Washington), May 26, 1903, page 2).
[xiii] Washington Times (Washington DC), March 5, 1905, page 7 (“Fakers finding there was no longer a sale for ‘Teddy’s bear,’ photographs of the ‘big stick,’ ‘I’m out on a --- of a time,’ and other buttons, decided to put something new on the market.”
[xiv] The Katonah Times (Katona, New York), March 17, 1905, page 2 (“The air is continually rent with the cries of the fakirs who have everything from souvenir badges to “Teddy’s Bear” for sale.  The latter is an ingenious toy in the shape of a bear, which, when wound up executes a dance that is very amusing.”  A cast-iron “dancing bear” was advertised in The Adirondack News (St. Regis Falls, New York), December 20, 1902, page ).
[xv] The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana, September 26, 1907, page 7.
[xvi] The Calumet News (Calumet, Michigan), May 1, 1913, page 1.
[xvii] Oakland Tribune (California), May 28, 1913, page 9.
[xviii] Scientific American, Volume 107, Number 14, October 5, 1912, page 291.
[xix] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 10, 1912, page 24.