Cuddly stuffed bears have been a standard child’s toy for more than 100 years. The teddy bear story began on a hunting trip taken by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. The President having failed to bag a trophy, his gracious Mississippi hosts caught and tied up a bear for him to shoot. Good sportsman that he was, Roosevelt declared, “Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal.” The incident was nicely captured in a cartoon by Clifford Berryman in the Washington Star: the President turns his back on a cowering cub. The caption, referring to a state border dispute, reads: “Drawing the line in Mississippi.”
The image was reprinted in papers across the nation, and a Brooklyn toy salesman named Morris Michtom got an idea. The 32-year-old Russian immigrant made a stuffed animal, called it “Teddy’s Bear,” and put it and the cartoon in his store window. Customers were not just attracted to his store, they wanted to buy a Teddy’s Bear. Michtom started manufacturing Teddy’s Bears, with button eyes, and in 1903 founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, which netted him a fortune.
At the same time, over in Germany, seamstress Margaret Steiff, who had been making a variety of hand-sewn felt animals—including bears—since the 1880s, was given a copy of the Roosevelt cartoon. She decided to turn out her own line of bears, which premiered at the 1904 Leipzig Fair. Steiff was a wheelchair-bound polio victim with an enviable amount of energy; swamped with orders for bears, she satisfied customers’ demands. Up to the eve of World War I, she sold millions of stuffed bears.
Teddy bears of all sorts have remained popular, while Steiff bears have become collector’s items. In 1994, a 1904 cinnamon Steiff bear sold at auction in London to Yoshihiro Sekiguchi, founder of the Teddy Bear Museum in Izu, Japan, for £110,000!