How the Teddy Bear Got Its Name

Early original Steiff teddy bear, golden with red bow around neck Steiff Gold Early Original Teddy, c. 1948-1952. Sold for $500 via Morphy Auctions (October 2018).

The classic teddy bear is an icon of childhood; a toy box staple beloved by children the world over. But while vintage teddy bears may feel like timeless relics, the first toy teddy bear is hardly more than century old. The origin story of the teddy bear is one of two toy industry giants striking on the same font of inspiration: the Ideal Toy Company, founded by Morris and Rose Michtom; and Steiff, founded in 1880 by seamstress Margarete Steiff.

In an unlikely turn of events, it is also the story of former President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt. On the occasion of Roosevelt’s birthday on October 27, we’re dusting off the iconic legend that led to the production of one of the most beloved relics of childhood memory.

The History of the Teddy Bear

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (1858–1919) — often known as “Teddy,” though he reportedly loathed the nickname — became the 26th president of the United States following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. One of his greatest contributions was his passion conservation efforts, which helped preserve vast swaths of the American landscape. During his presidency, in fact, he doubled the number of national parks and created eighteen national monuments, ultimately setting aside over 200 million acres of land for preservation. But perhaps one of things he’s best remembered for is lending his name to the beloved childhood toy, the teddy bear.

The story goes that in November of 1902, by invitation of the Governor, President Roosevelt joined a bear hunting party for a trip in Mississippi. Through the course of the day, many members of the hunting party were able to successfully find and kill animals, but luck was not on the President’s side, and he was unable to find a bear. His attendants finally took matters into their hands and, using hounds, they chased and captured an adult American black bear. They tied the bear to a tree and offered it up to the President shoot as a trophy. Roosevelt, a proud big-game hunter, refused to kill the bear, and found the entire affair unsportsmanlike. 

Early 20th century political cartoon featuring President Theodore Roosevelt and a baby bear

Clifford K. Berryman, “To the Woods!” cartoon featuring President Theodore Roosevelt and the Teddy Bear Character, U.S. National Archives. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The story took the nation by storm after political cartoonist Clifford Berryman immortalized the moment in a cartoon for The Washington Post, titled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.”  Berryman’s choice to portray Roosevelt’s bear as an adorable cub rather than as an adult became pivotal in the creation of the teddy bear as a childhood toy.

Ideal Teddy Bears

Enter Morris Michtom, who together with his wife Rose, owned a candy and novelty shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn. During the day the couple worked in the store; at night they produced stuffed toys to display in the store windows to attract the attention of passersby. Inspired by Berryman’s Washington Post cartoon, Mitchom and Rose made a stuffed bear. They aptly named it “Teddy’s Bear,” and placed it in their store window alongside a copy of the cartoon. The bear proved popular, but before they put it up for sale, Michtom decided to send the toy to President Roosevelt himself, accompanied by a letter asking for permission to use his name. Roosevelt agreed, though he doubted his name would help sell the bear. He was wrong.

Golden mohair Ideal vintage teddy bear

Ideal vintage teddy bear, American, named Ralphie, golden mohair, 1908–1910. Sold for £90 via Vectis Auctions (August 2019).

Whether in response to the bear’s cuteness or to the president’s popularity, the Teddy Roosevelt teddy bear sold so well that the Michtoms dropped the apostrophe and began mass-producing “Teddy Bears.” They ultimately closed their Brooklyn candy shop to open The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, which was later renamed “Ideal Toy Company.” Ideal Toy Company went on to become a leader in the toy industry for much of the twentieth century, creating the first hard plastic dolls and iconic games and puzzles like Mouse Trap and the Rubik’s Cube. The company ultimately closed in 1997.

How to Identify Vintage Ideal Teddy Bears

Early Ideal Toy Company bears were unlabeled, which makes identifying them today a bit tricky. The early 1900s bears can be recognized by several unique traits: 

  • Triangular heads;
  • Thread detailing on their snouts and toes;
  • Felt pads on all paws; and
  • Their signature posture. 

The bears’ iconic stance includes sitting back with their legs splayed, feet pointed outward, and long arms positioned in almost a shrugging motion. Most teddy bears from the early twentieth century were primarily made of mohair and were stuffed with excelsior, also known as “wood wool.” The stuffing made the bears stiff, quite unlike the soft and squishy bears made of synthetic material that consumers are more familiar with today. Ideal Toy Company teddy bears were mass-produced and used the same patterns for new bears for long stretches of time, making them easier to obtain at more accessible price-points.

The Steiff Teddy Bear

As Morris Michtom was making the bear that would jump-start his company, another visionary toy maker across the Atlantic Ocean was debuting a similar stuffed companion at the Leipzig Toy Trade Fair in Germany. Richard Steiff of Steiff, a German toy manufacturer owned and opened by his aunt Margarete Steiff, created a set of 100 bears based off life sketches he used to draw at the Stuttgart Zoo. The first model of the Steiff teddy bear was developed in 1902 and was called “Bear 55 PB,” which comprised of “55” for their height of 55 centimeters, “P” for plush, and “B” for the German word for movable. Richard Steiff had trouble selling the bears at the fair and is said to have been packing them up when a buyer from the George Borgfeldt Toy Company, a New York toy importer, purchased all 100 of Steiff’s bears — and commissioned 3,000 more. 

Steiff large-eyed, brown-tipped golden teddy bear with pink bow

Steiff large-eyed, brown-tipped golden teddy bear, jointed, mohair. 1920s. Sold for £16,250 via Christie’s (October 2010).

Steiff, a small toy company at the time, struggled to fulfill the large order, but by all accounts the 3,000 “55 PB” bears were produced and shipped. However, those bears never made it to New York City — and their whereabouts remain unknown. The location of the missing original Steiff teddy bears, in fact, is one of the greatest mysteries in toy collecting. Some theorize the toys were lost at sea, though this cannot be substantiated by historical record (and was most likely made up as a bit of fun marketing for a 50th anniversary teddy bear celebration). Experts agree it’s more likely that the original bears simply weren’t durable enough to survive the trip and arrived unfit for sale. Still, many hold out hope that a “55 PB” bear will appear at auction one day. If one did, it would more than likely break all records and become the most expensive teddy bear sold.

How to Identify a Steiff Bear

Despite the disappearance of the initial order, more Steiff bears continued to be produced and shipped to America, where they adopted the same name as their competitor: teddy bear. Steiff teddy bears are most recognizable with the following features: 

  • A signature button and tag in the left ear branded with the company’s logo; and
  • Articulated limbs.

This first run of stuffed toys that Steiff sold in America, the 1904 28 PBs, featured a metal rod system for movement. These rods are detectable by x-ray and many collectors will actually put their bears through an x-ray scanner to verify their authenticity. Steiff teddy bears produced from 1905 onward used cardboard discs and metal pins, rather than metal rods, for movement. The bears are of a particularly high quality and are still produced by hand to this day. Even relatively new Steiff bears tend to appreciate in value.

Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear

Black Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear with Button

Black Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear with Button. Sold for $35,500 via James D. Julia (June 2014).

One of the most coveted antique teddy bears is the Steiff Titanic Mourning Bear. Steiff produced 600 black mohair bears with red rimmed glass eyes in five different sizes to memorialize the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The rarest examples are 20-inch bears; in 2000, one such sized bear sold at Christie’s in London for £91,750. Its value was attributed to its scarcity and condition — teddy bear was in exceptionally good condition because its owner kept it in a closet for most of its life. Other Steiff Titanic mourning bears have made their way to auctions over the years, though none in as pristine condition as the example that sold in 2000.

Steiff Hot-Water Bottle Teddy Bear

A very rare Steiff hot-water bottle teddy bear

A very rare Steiff hot-water bottle teddy bear, sold for $51,653 via Christie’s (December 2002).

The most unique Steiff teddy bear is perhaps the Steiff Hot-Water Bottle Teddy Bear. This bear was hollow and was accompanied by a tin water bottle, which was meant to be heated and placed inside for children’s use. The bear was on the market from 1907 to 1914, but never caught on with consumers. As such, few well preserved examples exist in the market. The scarcity of this model has certainly contributed to its value: A hot water bottle teddy bear with its original canister sold at Christie’s in 2002 for $51,653. 

J.K. Farnell Teddy Bears and Bing Teddy Bears

Rare Early English Farnell Alpha Teddy Bear

Rare Early English Farnell Alpha Teddy Bear, 1920s. Sold for $700 via Morphy Auctions (October 2018).

Steiff and Ideal Toy Company aren’t the only sources of antique bears to keep an eye out for; there were a number of other notable teddy bear manufacturers. Some other toy makers include J.K Farnell, a British toy company that created bears in a similar style to Steiff bear. Antique Farnell teddy bears even include the bear that inspired author A.A. Milne to write the children’s classic Winnie the Pooh.

German toy company Bing (or Gebrüder Bing for “Bing Brothers), produced longer bears with scruffier hair and glass eyes. They were only in business until 1932 but they also produced a wide variety of mechanical teddy bears with wind up mechanisms. Fabrication Artistique d’Animaux en Peluce or Fadap was a French company who produced colorful teddy bears made with short bristle mohair. These bears were rarely labeled but are easy to spot because their noses are are upturned.

Collectible Teddy Bears’ Value

If you’re interested in adding a vintage teddy bear to your collection, expect the price range to vary based on the manufacturer. An Ideal Toy Company bear from early twentieth century production runs will range in value from around $500 to $1000, depending on the condition of the example. A Steiff teddy bear of excellent condition from the same era may go for up to $500 per inch of bear, with some twenty-inch bears selling for around $10,000 at auction. Original 1904 Steiff Bear 28 PBs can sell for up to $40,000.

The origin story behind the beloved child’s toy teddy bear is one that hinged on a confluence of events: What if Teddy Roosevelt had better luck at hunting that day? Or if Morris Michtom forgot to get the evening paper? Or if Richard Steiff packed his boxes too quickly and missed his chance to sell his bears across the sea? Whether you credit Morris Michtom or Richard Steiff as the creator of the very first teddy bear, it’s undeniable that both contributed greatly to the history of this beloved toy. 

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