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Teddy Bears from Brooklyn

Dec 31, 2014 10:00 AM | 0 comments

The teddy bear has been a perennial gift favorite for at least a century. You may be surprised to learn that the invention of teddy bears is squarely rooted in Brooklyn. The holiday season is a good time to review the story of this adorable stuffed toy with which so many of us have a deep emotional connection.

An early 20th century family photograph of Brooklyn-born sculptor Frederick MacMonnies' daughters Betty and Marjorie, flanked by their governess and their good friend, the teddy bear.

My research was spurred, oddly enough, by a work of fiction. Karen Hesse’s “Brooklyn Bridge”, the 2008 Newbury Award winning novel, tells the story of the Russian immigrant Michtom family, who claimed to invent the popular toy. A search through the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle turned up the real life inspiration for the book, toy-maker Morris Michtom.  

Michtom owned a confectionery and novelty store in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The old Brooklyn city directories for 1902 - 1908 list Morris Michstrom, a cigar seller, at 404 Tompkins Ave (this address also appears in Karen Hesse’s book).  Michtom's stuffed creation was reportedly inspired by a cartoon published in 1902, which depicted President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a tethered bear cub.


The cartoon was based on a real story of a botched bear hunting expedition attended by Roosevelt in Mississippi. When the hunting dragged on for ten days without a bear sighting, the frustrated hosts, in order to please their important guest, found a bear cub and tethered it to a tree. Roosevelt refused to shoot the captive beast, saying that he "drew the line" at killing a young animal. Spurred by the story, Michtom's seamstress wife sewed a 2.5-foot-tall jointed bear by hand and they displayed it in their store. It quickly became one of their most popular items. The legend continues that Michtom sent a bear to the White House, requesting permission to name the toy Teddy Bear, and that he received a reply from the White House granting the permission. In 1903 the Michtoms approached a wholesaler, the Butler Brothers, with their toy bear. The Butler Brothers bought Mitchom's entire stock, launching his toy-manufacturing career. The Michtoms went on to found the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1907.

The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company eventually expanded beyond stuffed bears to manufacture dolls, action figures and board games. “Celebrity dolls” such as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, as well as Wetsy Betsy, Naughty Marietta, Flossie Flirt and hundreds of others were all in their roster of popular toys. In 1951, the Christmas offerings from the Ideal Toy Company included a doll that could change the facial expression from joy to sorrow at a twist of a knob under her bonnet.

It should be noted here that another name pops up in any research of teddy bear history -- Steiff.  Margarete Steiff, of Germany, is often described as the “mother of the teddy bear”. Suffering from polio as a child, she spent most of her time sewing. She made her first stuffed animal, a pin cushion shaped as an elephant, in 1880. After that, she made the whole farmyard of animals, and her brother and nephews helped her build a toy-manufacturing empire. The first evidence of stuffed bears made by Steiff goes back to 1903, when it was shown in the Leipzig Toy Fair. It was spotted in the Steiff pavilion by an American toy buyer and he placed an order of 3,000 bears to be made for the American market. It appears that the Steiffs did not call them teddy bears at that time, but rather bruins or simply bears. The Steiff bears were used to decorate the wedding reception for Roosevelt's daughter in 1906. When someone asked the breed of the bear, one of the guests reportedly exclaimed, "They’re teddy bears, of course!"

While it may be difficult to pinpoint which came first, the "teddy" or the bear, I suspect neither the Steiffs nor the Michtoms would stake the claim for this talking teddy, which “presided” over Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday anniversary celebration at Roosevelt Savings Bank (Gates Avenue and Broadway) in 1950.