The Bear Necessities: Steiff, and the Art of Collecting Teddy Bears

Ask almost anyone what the best-loved, most appealing and cuddly toy of all time is, and most will answer the teddy bear (sorry, Raggedy Ann and Andy lovers). Along with being among the most loved toys, teddy bears are also the most collectible. 
 
Developed—apparently simultaneously—by toymakers Morris Michtom in the U.S. and Richard Steiff in Germany in the early 20th century, the stuffed bears were named after President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. Roosevelt was commonly known as “Teddy” (although he loathed the nickname).

During a 1902 bear hunting trip, Roosevelt’s attendants cornered and tied an American black bear to a willow tree after a long exhausting chase. Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear himself, deeming it unsportsmanlike; the incident became the topic of a cartoon by Clifford Berryman in The Washington Post on November 16, 1902. Although the original cartoon depicted an adult bear lassoed by a handler and a disgusted Roosevelt, later versions made the bear smaller and cuter.

New York City-based, Russian-born toymaker Morris Michtom was inspired by the drawing of Roosevelt to create a soft toy bear cub and put it in his shop window with a sign reading “Teddy’s Bear,” having first sent a prototype to Roosevelt himself and receiving permission to use his name. 
 
The toys were an immediate success and Michtom founded the Ideal Toy Co. (which later introduced such popular products as the game Toss Across, the Magic 8 Ball, and the Rubik’s Cube to the American market). 
Meanwhile in Germany, toy designer Richard Steiff incorporated the sketches of bears he had made during visits to a zoo into the prototype of a toy bear he codenamed Steiff Bär (“bear”) 55 PB (with “55” equaling the bear’s height in centimeters; “P” meaning plush, and “B” meaning beweglich, or “moveable limbs,” in German).
 
Although Steiff and Michtom made their teddy bears at nearly the same time, neither would have known of the other’s creation due to the poor transatlantic communication of the day.
To Steiff’s disappointment, at their 1903 Leipzig Toy Fair debut, his bears didn’t attract much attention. Steiff’s fortunes were saved when, just before the fair ended, a buyer for George Borgfeldt & Company in New York purchased his entire lot of 100 bears and ordered an additional 3,000.
 
The teddy bear craze established the Steiff company. During the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Steiff sold 12,000 bears and earned the event’s highest honor, the Gold Medal. The bears, with a small metal STEIFF clip attached to the ear, became prized as collector’s items.
 
At the same time, the teddy bear became celebrated in story, song, and film. Canadian-born American educator Seymour Eaton wrote the children’s book series The Roosevelt Bears, and composer John Walter Bratton wrote the instrumental “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” in 1907, which in 1932 had words written by lyricist Jimmy Kennedy.
 
The fictional character Winnie-the-Pooh, created by A. A. Milne, is based on a teddy bear owned by his son Christopher Robin. Milne wrote many stories featuring Pooh Bear, some of which were adapted by the Walt Disney Company into theatrical shorts and films.
 
Morris Michtom’s articulated mohair “Teddy’s Bears” have jointed hips, necks, and shoulders. Early examples have a vaguely “football” shape and are mostly made of short gold or beige mohair plush, with matching felt paws, and distinctive, sharply pointed foot pads. They have shoe-button or glass eyes, and the fur around the muzzles may be shorn. Later bears were made in a large variety of colors and types (for example, pandas) and have longer fur.
While early teddy bears were made to resemble real bears, with extended snouts and beady eyes, to some modern eyes these have an unsettling “uncanny valley” effect. Modern teddy bears tend to have larger eyes and foreheads and smaller noses, and babylike features that enhance the toy’s cuteness.
 
The earliest teddy bears were covered in tawny mohair fur. Since then, “teddies” have varied in form, style, color, and materials. Like their modern descendants, many have fully articulated and moveable arms, legs and heads.
Other collectible bears include the Knickerbocker Toy Co. of New York bears (produced c. 1924–1925), which are marked with a label in the front seams. Knickerbocker bears usually have long bodies, small feet, and short, straight arms and legs. “Hershey’s Bears,” which were made to promote The Hershey Company’s chocolate bars, are also prized by collectors.
 
Brands associated with teddy bears that have enjoyed popularity include Teddy Ruxpin and Care Bears. Among the largest and best-known “do-it-yourself” chains are Build-A-Bear Workshop and Vermont Teddy Bear Company. Popular mass-marketed teddy bears made today include Rupert, Sooty, Paddington, and Pudsey Bear.

As well as remaining among the most popular gifts for children, teddy bears are also prized by adults, and are given to signify love, congratulations, and sympathy. The highly collectible treasures of Americana—as well as a selection of other stuffed toys, including Raggedy Ann and Andy—are well represented in the collection of teddy bears offered by Whitley’s Auctioneers, and available during our August 24, 2019 Auction.