Toy animals have been around since the days of Ancient Egypt, but bears only since the 18th century, and genuinely cuddly ones, made of plush stuffed with something that will take a squeeze, only became available as a manufactured item in the 19th century.
However, the all-encompassing soubriquet’ Teddy’ owes its origins in this context to the 20th century. ‘Teddy’ has been around as an abbreviation for Edward since the 17th century but it saw the early 20th century before the word became attached to bears. Nor was it in this context, – short for Edward – but for Theodore, the culprit being US President Theodore Roosevelt.
On 16th November 1902 the Washington Post ran a cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear. He had been part of a hunting party in Mississippi but in three days was the only member of the party not to have had a shot at a bear. Not wishing to lose face the organiser, the state governor, ran to earth an old injured bear, tied it to a tree and invited the President to shoot it, to which, he replied ‘Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal.’
The incident soon got out and to connect his reluctance with current politics led to the cartoon being published. Not only that, but the cartoonist, Clifford Berryman, never failed to include a ridiculous looking bear in any subsequent cartoon of the president!
Yet the Teddy Bear connection came about through a New York sweet shop owner who saw the cartoon and put in his shop window two stuffed toy bears his wife had made, but perspicaciously first asked Roosevelt’s permission to call these toy bears ‘Teddy’s bears’. Their unexpected success led him to mass-produce them, eventually forming the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.
Almost simultaneously, a Germany company, started making stuffed bears too. Margaret Steiff was a seamstress but with the help of her nephew Richard, diversified into making soft toys. In 1903, an American saw one of her toys at the Leipzig toy fair – a bear, needless to say but one which went a stage further with jointed arms and legs – and bulk-ordered them for re-sale. These also came to be called Teddy Bears. These early ones are beautifully made usually covered in plush or mohair and tend to have slightly humped backs and longish, more realistic, snouts.
Steiff bears can be very valuable, as can other German makes such as Bing, Sussenguth Brothers and Schuco. Such was their popularity that, with the first war, German imports to the UK dried up and several British companies rushed to fill the gap, Chiltern, Dean, JK Farnell, Merrythought and Chad Valley being amongst those that began to manufacture Teddies.
Because no two Steiff bears are exactly alike, prices can vary, but the early date and sheer quality can lift prices of examples in good condition to as much as £30,000 retail – this for a black coloured one made for the British market in memory of the Titanic disaster of 1912 and in superb condition.
And of course, one should always buy bears in the best possible condition; they have to have been expertly repaired and more importantly professionally cleaned for a dirty bear can spread mites and moth which can spread to other soft toys and indeed us. If the price is high, try and establish provenance, like a good work of art. If they’re ‘well-loved’ they will be less collectible and hence less valuable, even though perhaps all the more endearing!
Rupert Bear and
In 1920 the strip cartoon featuring Rupert Bear in the Daily Express revived the boom, followed hard on its heels by Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, the original of which was a Teddy made by the firm of J K Farnell and bought for his son by A A Milne in 1921. Paddington came along in the 1970s, and early ones are highly collectible: a group of three by Gabrielle Designs made over £100 at Bamford’s in August. Yet bears in character are really a distinct sub-division of Teddy bear collecting, not being Teddy bears at all!
Teddies can also have other, bolt-on characteristics which in earlier models can make them more desirable and hence more expensive. Some growl when rocked, others have a musical function: the possibilities are fairly wide.
Although Steiff bears, identifiable by their distinctive trademark button in one ear, resumed production in 1947, the present boom in collecting Teddies is traceable to 1969 when character actor Peter Bull wrote a book entitled Bear With Me (later re-titled The Teddy Bear Book) about his collection and affection for the toy. This led to a revival on the making of Teddy Bears, often individually made and in 1985 the Teddy Bear Artists’ Guild was formed; also, Christie’s held their first auction dedicated to the sale of antique bears.
Yet during the 1960s the traditional manufacturers lost ground to Teddies produced in China and Indonesia, as cheaper mass-produced bears took over the market. Nevertheless, there are still several companies that produce high-quality collectible bears around the world and in addition there are many ‘bear artists’ producing individual, hand-made collectors’ bears. Prices levelled out a few years ago with the recession but now they are steadily on the rise again
A recent Bamfords toy and juvenilia sale included no less than twenty-one collectible Teddy Bears, some by important makers, and although the majority were estimated at £40-60, most did much better than that. Modern ones are much less expensive, although very large ones tend to be (unnecessarily) pricey, but keep an eye out for quality and eschew artificial fibres
Bears come, like Antony’s Cleopatra, in infinite variety, and it is easy to adapt one’s collecting to what you like and maintain consistency as well as suit your pocket. Then of course, you just might want to buy one for an actual infant to cuddle up to!