Steve Woods

The Michtoms and their Teddy Bear

In What Day is it? on September 9, 2009 at 11:21 am
Cartoon of Teddy and the Bear Cub

Cartoon of Teddy and the Bear Cub

Prior to the introduction of Teddy Bears into American society, bears were symbols of strength and ferocity, perhaps because America was not long-removed from its migration from settled prairies into cities and towns. One never thought to hug one of the large, sharp-toothed and long-clawed denizens of the American forest.

In 1902, due to a long-standing boundary dispute between Mississippi and Louisiana, the governors of both states and President Theodore Roosevelt went on a hunting trip, in hopes of resolving their differences. President Roosevelt was well-known as a big game hunter, relentless in his pursuit of beasts in the wild. The target of choice during this five day hunt was the American Black Bear. (Although I personally do not condone the killing of animals only for sport, I truly miss in today’s political scene the American spirit embodied in that method of bringing people together.)

The national press grasped onto the enticing story, and a number of journalists followed along on the hunt, recording many aspects of it in great detail, much to the chagrin of the White House. With each passing and unsuccessful day of the hunt, the press egged the President on in the stories they sent out. On the fifth and final day, one of Teddy’s companions caught a young bear, in an effort to make for an easy kill, thus silencing the jokes. Teddy refused to shoot a defenseless animal tied to a tree, practically unconscious and surrounded by dogs. (Rumor has it that Teddy ultimately asked one of his party to kill the poor animal with a hunting knife, to put it out of its misery.)

The press reported far and wide on President Roosevelt’s decision to not kill the bear. Well-known cartoonist Clifford Berryman saw the firestorm of press coverage, and decided to draw a representation of the event, playing up Teddy’s compassion toward the bear. The cartoon was popular, and got redrawn over and over, each iteration making the animal smaller and smaller, eventually taking on the likeness of a tiny bear cub. In keeping with the border dispute, the cartoon was named “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.”

Morris and Rose Michtom, Russian immigrants living in Brooklyn, read the stories and enjoyed the cartoon. Having moved to America penniless twenty years earlier to escape the Jewish pogroms, they earned a small income on the side sewing stuffed animals and selling them in their tiny penny candy shop, Lollies. Morris suggested to Rose that she sew a bear in the cartoon image’s likeness. Rose got to work immediately, taking a piece of plush velvet materials and sewing it into the shape of a bear, replete with button eyes. Morris labeled the bear “Teddy’s Bear,” and placed it in the storefront window. Soon thereafter over a dozen individuals approached them attempting to buy it.

Rumor has it that Morris and Rose inquired of President Roosevelt whether or not they could name a line of stuffed bears in honor of him. President Roosevelt agreed, stating reservations that the use of his name could ever help sell a toy. Whether or not this is true, the newly created Teddy Bears became an instant hit with children and adults across America, and the Michtoms soon found themselves unable to keep up with the growing demand.

The Original Teddy Bear

The Original Teddy Bear

Morris and Rose’s little company sold millions of Teddy Bears, and eventually became known as the Ideal Toy Company, one of the largest toy companies in the World. Never forgetting the trials they overcame in their lives, Morris and Rose donated enormous amounts of money to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish National Fund, and a number of other Jewish charities.

How very interesting that Morris and Rose Michtom, driven to our fine nation by angry and dangerous stereotypes, could find a great living by turning a misunderstood and majestic creature into a beloved childhood treasure for many.

The original Teddy Bear created by Morris and Rose was given to President Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit in 1963. One month later, it was put on display at the Smithsonian, where it still resides in perfect condition. Perhaps the next time you see a Teddy fondly ensconced in the arms of a happy child, you will see a symbol of triumph over adversity, acceptance of our fellow man, and compassion to all.


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