This Day in History: Teddy Roosevelt, a political cartoon, and “Teddy’s Bear” is created
On this day in 1902, a political cartoon is published. It prompts the creation of the teddy bear! Did you know that teddy bears are named after President Teddy Roosevelt? And, if so, do you know why?
It all began when Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino invited Roosevelt on a hunting trip. Roosevelt loved to hunt, but this particular hunt wasn’t going so well for him. He didn’t see a bear for days, whereas the other hunters in the group were doing much better. The details of what happened next are a bit murky, but it seems that the others wanted to help the President get at least one bear.
A few versions of the story are told: Perhaps the hunters found and tied up a bear for the President. Or maybe some of the hunting dogs cornered a bear. Or perhaps the bear was cornered, but only because he’d killed one of the hunting dogs and had been stopped by one of the other hunters. That hunter clubbed the bear, rather than shoot it, saving the final kill for the President.
Whichever way it happened, a bear was trapped and the President was invited to get his prize. All versions of the story agree on what came next: Roosevelt refused to shoot a captured animal. It was unsportsmanlike! He believed in the “fair chase” and would only shoot an animal under those conditions.
Unsurprisingly, the story got out. Within days, a political cartoon was published, depicting the scene. It showed a cute little bear cowering, even as Roosevelt stood with his back to the bear, refusing to shoot it.
The story could have ended there, but . . . this is America, so it didn’t. Two entrepreneurs saw an opportunity and grabbed it—although they took extra care to respect their President as they did it.
Two candy shop owners in New York, Rose and Morris Michtom, were inspired to create a stuffed bear. They expected “Teddy’s bear” to sit in the front window of their shop. But on the very first day, at least a dozen people asked if they could buy it! The Michtoms began to wonder if they might need the President’s permission to proceed with their new enterprise, so they mailed him a request: Would the President mind if they named their bears after him?
Along with their request, they sent the original stuffed bear as a gift for the President’s children.
“I don’t think my name is likely to be worth much in the toy bear business,” Roosevelt reportedly replied, “but you are welcome to use it. I wish you great luck with your toy bear business.”
Roosevelt must have been surprised by what followed?
Before too long, the Michtoms were selling so many bears that they shut down their candy shop and opened a toy company, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. Other entrepreneurs were soon following suit, making their own versions of the teddy bear. The Republican Party even adopted the bear as a mascot of sorts for a while.
And that’s how teddy bears became a staple of American life.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Frank Murphy, The Legend of the Teddy Bear (2000)
Gilbert King, The History of the Teddy Bear: From Wet and Angry to Soft and Cuddly (Smithsonian; December 21, 2012)
Marlo Carter Kirkpatrick, It Happened in Mississippi (2013)
Minor Ferris Buchanan, Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear (2002)
Real Teddy Bear Story (Theodore Roosevelt Association website)
Rose and Morris Michtom (Jewish Virtual Library)
The Story of the Teddy Bear (National Park Service: Theodore Roosevelt birthplace)