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The teddy bear timeline: A look back at teddy bear history

Updated: Jan 22

It’s time for a teddy bear history lesson! Discover why the teddy bear back-story is even more interesting than you think…

2 brown teddy bears

A brief history of teddy bears

Here at Giant Bear, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that if we were to go to university, the chances are we’d be taking a degree in Bear Studies! As we’ve made it our life’s work to hand-craft our very own lifesize bear sculptures out of the Giant Bear workshop in the UK - we’ve also taken it upon ourselves to look a little deeper into the history of teddy bears. Just where did the original teddy bear come from? And what about these vintage Steiff teddy bears too?

What can we expect from the teddy bears of the future? We dig a little deeper into all of this here. Just think of it as our very own mini teddy bear history thesis!

So where did the teddy bear story begin?

Original teddy bears are essentially everyone’s favourite variation of a toy doll. But did you know that the first toy dolls date back to as far as 14,000 BC in Japan? Back in those days, dolls were, and still are, quite ceremonial. We can then trace the first dolls in Europe back to around 2,000 BC as they were found in Pantelleria, which is actually nearer Africa than Europe.

Apparently, it wasn’t until the 1700s and into the 1800s that soft toy dolls started to become popular. And then it was in the 1800s that they started to be made in the form of cute animals. But our teddy bear history research tells us that our bear friends as we know them today didn’t actually emerge until the early 1900s - and this is why…

gold giant bear sculpture

Fury interesting teddy bear history

We all know that the original teddy bear is naturally associated with babies and children. What makes a cute gift for a new baby? Or an adorable centrepiece for a baby shower? And what do little boys drag around as their best friend for years? If you are thinking of Christopher Robin, then you'll immediately think of Winnie the Pooh, his stuffed bear (one of our faves!)

With such an obvious association with kids, you might be surprised to learn that the original teddy bear itself is actually quite new in terms of the history books. In fact, teddies were actually invented to honour President Theodore Roosevelt and were given that name at the beginning of the 20th century. You might also be surprised to know that the original teddy bears were not cute and cuddly like our ones at Steiff teddy bears, and were actually pretty rough to the touch.

A artist sketch drawing of Roosevelt hunting

The real teddy bear story

The teddy bear story can be traced back to November 14, 1902. On this day, the US President of the time, Roosevelt set off on a bear hunting trip in Onward, Mississippi. The hunting party was large and many in the party had already gotten a bear - but President Roosevelt wasn’t so successful. In fact, he didn’t even spot a single bear!

Not wanting Roosevelt to look bad, his assistants tracked a black bear deep in the woods. When it came down to it though, it seemed good old Roosevelt was a fellow bear lover and refused to shoot the bear his friends had tracked down for him (phew!) Now, this is the part of the teddy bear story that really saw the birth of the original teddy bear…

Days after the hunt, word of Roosevelt's refusal to kill the bear hit newspapers across the country, and political cartoonist Clifford Berryman picked up on the story. He then drew a cartoon showing how President Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear while hunting in Mississippi. Meanwhile, over in Brooklyn NY, candy shop owner, Morris Michtom, saw this cartoon and had a genius idea…

He put in his shop window two stuffed toy bears his wife had made. Michtom asked permission from President Roosevelt to call these toy bears "Teddy's bears" - named after him! The rapid popularity of these bears led Michtom to mass-produce them, eventually forming the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.

And thus the original teddy bear as we know it was born! From vintage Steiff teddy bears to Care Bears, to the sculptures we make ourselves at Giant Bear- every single furry bear friend can be traced back to this teddy bear story. In fact, here at Giant Bear, we’re wondering why there’s not a monument somewhere dedicated to Michtom!

After that dose of teddy bear history, we now know where the very idea of our favourite furry friends came from. But what about the history behind specific teds?

indigo infinity giant bear sculpture

A brown vintage Steiff bear

Vintage Steiff teddy bears

The mother of Steiff bears was Margarete Steiff herself. She founded her company in 1880 and was joined in 1897 by her nephew Richard Steiff. Little did he know at the time, but he was to become the most important figure in the history of the vintage Steiff teddy bear! He was a talented artist and to get ideas and inspiration he would often visit zoos to sketch the animals. His favourite type of bear was brown bears, and he wanted to make a soft toy that would capture their spirit and charm. Starting with stationary bears made from a coarse fabric called burlap, Richard then designed the classic bear on wheels. Still not happy that this toy captured the movement of the wild bear he loved, he then spent years developing a limb jointing system.

In 1902 Richard Steiff designed the very first jointed vintage Steiff teddy bear, which had string jointing. This was followed by rod jointed bears and then in 1905 Richard’s perfected bear with the revolutionary disk jointing, which is still used today! These bears were gifted thousands of times and over the following years, their descendants took the world by storm with their collection of beloved vintage Steiff teddy bears.

The company motto is “Only the best is good enough for our children”. By sticking to this over the years the company name has become synonymous with high-quality soft Steiff teddies from the UK and also all over the world! The company is also well known for its “Button in Ear” trademark.

So there you have it - the Steiff teddy bear history!

A selection of brown, grey and white teddy bears

Thoroughly modern bears

These days in 2024, you can find a heck of a lot of choices when it comes to teddies. The UK in particular is a nation of teddy lovers. In fact, a survey carried out in 2019 actually found that 1 in 3 British adults still actually sleep with their teddy bears! So as you can see, the demand for good old original teddy bears is as strong as ever, there’s so much choice when it comes to 21st-century teddies.

A silver Giant Bear Sculpture

Bears of the future

We’ve come a long way since the original teddy bear and the days of the vintage Steiff teddy bear. From life-size bears to talking bears to glow-in-the-dark comfort bears and even majestic Giant Bear sculptures that serve as awe-inspiring centrepieces in homes and public spaces - there is not a lot that teddies and their larger-than-life counterparts can't do these days! While teddies offer soft comfort, Giant Bear sculptures instill a sense of wonder and grandeur, making them a cherished addition to modern art collections and installations. But the history of teddy bears and their monumental counterparts shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, a report carried out by the University of Virginia in America predicts that the bears of the future will actually be able to gather key information for us too, through the clever use of internal AI! These super clever bears will be used to improve the emotional well-being of children in hospitals, as well as helping children at early learning levels to increase their reading-comprehension skills. With the evolution of bear design, who knows? Maybe Giant Bear sculptures will also find a role in this innovative future, serving as both art and interactive installations.

So you see - there truly is no end to the talents of our beloved teddies!

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