Tennessee Mountain Stories

Yesterday’s Teddy Bears


Teddy Bears are a precious part of childhood.  I have a favorite bear that was handmade by my Great-Aunt Mary and loved nearly to pieces.  But I never gave much thought to the history of this snuggly toys until a friend told me of finding an old bear in an historic home I wrote about here

Leslie Gentry grew up across the street from the early 1900 home and his sister lived in this house.  When I began to ask him questions about the house he mentioned that he’d found an antique teddy bear in an old shed on the property.  My eyes popped wide open to hear that.  Then I got in my car one evening after church to find the furry friend in the passenger seat!  Now I just had to learn about him!

Stuffed bears may have been made by the original creators of toys – mothers – long before but the Steiff company began commercial production and sales in 1880.  About the same time, American toy maker Morris Michtom began marketing plush bears as well. 

The bears were instantly popular but it wasn’t until a cartoonist drew President Teddy Roosevelt with a cute old bear that the toys were named Teddy Bears.  And it was Mr. Michtom who first tagged his stuffed animals with the President’s familiar name. 

It seems that President Teddy Roosevelt was on a rather unsuccessful hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902.  Determined that the president succeed, some of the hunt’s organizers captured a bear which their dogs had wounded.  When President Roosevelt saw the animal tied to a tree he refused to kill him but because of his wounds he was ordered put down.  The American people loved their leader’s compassion and the title would stick to the plush toys from then on. 

As with all things, Teddy Bears have changed a lot over the past century.  Fur was originally made from Mohair, then silk and eventually synthetics were invented in 1938.  Stuffing was first “wood wool” which was long fine shavings and made a rather crunchy sounding bear.  After 1914 a tropical product called Kapok was used for stuffing, then textile waste or cork and rubber granules.  Even eyes and noses have changed with the first eyes being wooden and noses being sewn in thread. 

Well this adorable little animal that my friend shared with me seems to have all of the characteristics of the oldest bears.  He’s crunchy, has wooden eyes and a black string nose with felt pads on his feet an arms.  He’s not the softest bear but I can just imagine the child who is standing with his family in the earliest picture of the historic home playing endlessly with this little fellow.