Who really invented the Teddy Bear?
Perhaps you’re familiar with the origins of the Teddy Bear, one of the most popular toys in the world. Here’s the most sanitized American version of the story you may have heard:
On a bear hunting trip in 1902, Teddy Roosevelt was presented with an adorable bear cub tied to a tree and ready for him to shoot. He refused such an unsportsmanlike kill and insisted that the bear be freed. Inspired by a cartoon visualizing this, a shopkeeper in Brooklyn created a stuffed toy bear and put it in his window next to the cartoon, labeling it “Teddy’s Bear.” It became an immediate sensation and the rest is history.
While this fairy tale version is rooted in truth, it doesn’t match up to reality for two major reasons.
- The real story of Teddy Roosevelt’s bear hunt is much more chaotic and deadly.
- The story of this Brooklyn shopkeeper doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
We get into all the details in our podcast episode “Teddy Bear’s Creation Myths”—take a listen now if you’d like to avoid spoilers:
In the first act, we dig into that 1902 hunting trip and the man in charge of it, Holt Collier. A former slave turned Confederate soldier who went on to become a cowboy and a successful hunting trip organizer, Collier is said to have killed over 3000 bears himself.
But bears were one thing; presidents were another. Teddy Roosevelt had very specific demands for this trip, the greatest being that he had to kill the first bear himself. Roosevelt also said he wanted a hunt and not a picnic, and that too many people made for a failed hunt and a poor picnic. Roosevelt’s demands ultimately led to a failed hunt, but a story of that hunt lives on.
As we discuss in the episode, the story that lives on doesn’t quite capture what happened.
Who Created The Teddy Bear?
There are two competing origin stories for the teddy bear and most folks have given up on distinguishing which one bears the most legitimate claim to its invention, simply saying that they were simultaneously invented by both Morris and Rose Michtom in Brooklyn who were directly inspired by a cartoon of Roosevelt’s hunt and created the stuffed toy bear as “Teddy’s Bear,” and by Margarete and Richard Steiff in Germany, who were already in the plush toy company and stumbled upon a hit design that was later linked to President Roosevelt.
Both Michtom and Steiff were giants in the toy industry, but only Steiff can claim a provable history of creating and distributing stuffed toy bears that eventually became connected with Teddy Roosevelt. Michtom, who can proudly claim the invention of the Shirley Temple doll and Betsy Wetsy doll, did indeed manufacture teddy bears, but the evidence—exquisitely gathered by Peter Jensen Brown in his Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog—points to Michtom’s teddy bears being manufactured as American knockoffs of the original genuine German Steiff bears.
History.com and a slew of other purveyors of historic facts declare that the first teddy bear was sold in Michtom’s store on February 15, 1903.
The problem is, this “February 15, 1903” claim doesn’t appear to be backed up by any contemporary sources or…anyone. (If you can find a contemporary source, please send it to us!)
And Michtom, whose role in the toy industry was written about several times throughout his life, never seems to have claimed to be the originator of the teddy bear. That story isn’t published until after his death, when newspapers likely misinterpreted his hometown’s write-up of his life which described him as the inventor of several toys but only a manufacturer of teddy bears.
Then, in 1949, eleven years after his death, the story emerged in print that Michtom not only created the first teddy bear in early 1903 after seeing Clifford Berryman’s cartoon of Roosevelt refusing to shoot a black bear in Mississippi, but that he sent his first teddy bear to the president asking for permission to use his name. According to this family story, Roosevelt wrote back and gave him his blessing though he didn’t think it would help him move any merchandise. Some sources say the family still has that original letter from Roosevelt, but no one seems to have ever seen it and no copy of it has ever been shared.
But the greatest reason to discount Michtom as the inventor of the teddy bear is the timing of the teddy bear craze. Peter Jensen Brown uncovered evidence that Michtom was manufacturing teddy bears in 1907. We know that teddy bears were becoming a hit toy in 1905, and newspapers referred to them as German toys created by Margarete Steiff. American knockoffs reportedly started in 1906. So even if Michtom did create “Teddy’s Bear” in 1903, it wasn’t a big hit and he never seemed to claim credit for it.
If the Michtom family’s story is true, perhaps he was ahead of his time and his brief attempts at making and selling a teddy bear languished. Then later, these German stuffed bears came along which someone else connected to Teddy’s name in 1905 to truly kick off the teddy bear craze.
One rarely talked about fact about early teddy bears is that they growled! In the episode, Howard and Jess do their best reenactments of what those original growls might have sounded like.
Here’s a video of a 1920s “growler” from Steiff:
Have you found an antique doll buried in your yard?
Or even multiple dolls in a creepy doll grave? If so, you might be living in a horror movie with Satanic Panic tropes. Or maybe…those dolls were buried as a result of the Teddy Bear craze of the late 1910s.
That might be what happened in Reno, Nevada in the summer of 1907, at least according to this woman who was reluctant to disclose what she had witnessed firsthand.
This woman claims to have witnessed “the little girl next door arranging her dolls for a burial, while one of the little boys of the neighborhood was digging a grave.” Did she do this out of loyalty to her new teddy bear overlord? Did she do this in a strange attempt to get a teddy bear because her dolls were gone? Did this even really happen? So many questions.
When it comes to the teddy bear, nothing is at it seems. Except its enduring place in the toy world and its status as a huggable bastion of unconditional love—a far cry from it’s murky violent origins.
Listen to the episode to hear the full story about the teddy bear’s origin, the absurd Protestant opposition to it, and how a man named Theodore Bear fits into it all.
Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan
Margarete Steiff, Morris Michtom and Teddy Roosevelt – Hunting Down the Origin of “Teddy Bear” by Peter Jensen Brown, Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog
How This Photo of Theodore Roosevelt in Hunting Gear Helped Jump-Start the American Conservation Movement by Philip Dray, Time Magazine, May 1, 2018
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
Teddy Bears are History’s Most Subversive Toy by Jason Feifer, Build for Tomorrow podcast, December 5, 2019
My Therapist Told Me To Sleep With A Teddy Bear. I Had No Idea How Much It’d Change My Life. by Rachel Weinhaus, Huffington Post, November 27, 2022
We have been Steiff collectors for over 30 years and this is one of the best articles we’ve read in quite some time. Very well said!