My Pulse News

Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

Reflections from History and Faith

A Tale of Two Bears

By Jeff Olson

Those who read this probably include some bear hunters, so I’ve got a story for you and for that matter… about everyone. There are lots of bears out there, and some of them live in our neck of the woods. My short story today involves two bears: 

First — one real bear which was hurt and frightened.

Second — one toy bear in particular which, among other roles, has soothed many who have been hurt and frightened. 

The two bears’ emergence into our culture came quite by accident, you might say. Our story begins in a most unexpected way in November 1902. The states of Mississippi and Louisiana had a disagreement over the location of their common boundary, which bisected some of the least well-developed land in the United States. The governors of both states invited President Theodore Roosevelt to arbitrate the dispute.

Roosevelt decided to combine his tour of the disputed territory with a five-day black bear hunt. The president was having unusually bad luck on his hunt, and as the end of the outing was drawing near, one of his guides, Holt Collier, decided to wound a small bear he had located so that the president could shoot it and claim a kill. The president flat out refused. Having shot grizzly bears out west, he could not bring himself to taking unfair advantage of a terrified trapped animal. The President is rumored to have said, “I’ve hunted game all over America and I’m proud to be a hunter. But I couldn’t be proud of myself if I shot an old, tired, worn-out bear that was tied to a tree.”

Well, it wasn’t long before this story made its way out of Mississippi and into newspapers. One of the first, if not the first, was to cartoonist Clifford Berryman. He wasted no time in drawing and publishing a picture in the Washington Post newspaper of the president turning away in disgust from the idea of shooting a helpless bear. The cartoon was titled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” and it endeared much of America to the president.

Clifford Berrymans illustration of Theodore Roosevelts 1902 bear hunt which inspired the birth of the Teddy Bear

Soon the story grew a life of its own and spread like wildfire, including to two Russian-Jewish immigrants, Morris and Rose Michtom. They owned and operated a candy store in Brooklyn, New York, and came up with an idea. Since they also sold stuffed animals in their store, after seeing Berryman’s drawing, Michtom created a small plush bear cub and sent it to the president, seeking his permission in naming it after Roosevelt himself. 

Upon Roosevelt’s approval (and serious doubts about the success of the enterprise), Michtom made several more bears and, in February 1903, placed several of them in his store shop window with a sign “Teddy’s bear.” 

Soon after Michtom began advertising them, the demand for Teddy Bears became so great that he couldn’t make enough of them to satisfy demand. Since there turned out to be more profit in teddy bears than in candy, they decided to produce them on a full-time basis. 

Other manufacturers soon jumped on the bandwagon and started turning out copies of Michtom’s stuffed bears. From here, the Michtom’s business grew into the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1907, which remained in the family until the 1970s.

Because of the doll’s popularity, Roosevelt and the Republican Party adopted it as their symbol in the election of 1904.

By 1908, the bear had become such a popular toy nationwide that a Michigan minister warned that replacing dolls with toy bears would destroy the maternal instincts in little girls.

Through a series of communications with one of President Roosevelt’s daughters, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Michtom’s son Benjamin convinced her to donate one of her original Teddy Bears to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. She did so in January 1964. 

An original Teddy Bear thought to be made by Morris Michtom donated by the Roosevelt family to the Smithsonian s National Museum of American History

Whatever happened to the wounded and frightened bear which drew the attention of millions and helped to inspire an American institution? To avoid further suffering, it was ordered put down by the man who could have chosen to exploit it for the furtherance of his rugged outdoorsman reputation. Unbeknownst to Roosevelt at the time, this compassionate decision would add to his legacy of sportsmanship and conservation and evermore be symbolized through the Teddy Bear.

And, what about the man who brought this to the national spotlight, Clifford Berryman? He went on to become a Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist with The Washington Star newspaper from 1907 until his death in 1949. 

While the Teddy Bear wasn’t the first stuffed animal or even the first stuffed bear to come on the scene, it certainly became the most popular and endearing. Sales of stuffed bears exceeds $50 million annually in the U.S., and I would venture to guess that just about everyone reading this has either owned their own Teddy Bear or known someone who did. It may have not been called that by name, but at the very least it was manufactured by a company which was influenced by Teddy.

Some companies even offer made-to-order stuffed bears, and some give you the opportunity to build your own bear, so getting in on the act and in creative ways has become a huge and profitable industry.

Stuffed bears are also made for members of American military branches (i.e., Bear Forces of America), and have served as sources of comfort, including for POWs. There are also Gold Star mothers who create Teddy bears out of the uniforms of fallen soldiers to help other families cope with their tragedies. Teddy’s stories are inspiring and seemingly endless.

And, finally for me, I can still remember my own little stuffed bear which gave me countless hours of comfort, companionship, and even some relief from reality from time to time. Nothing speaks as deep as personal experience.

It is reported that about 44% of adults still have their childhood “Teddys” and around 34% sleep with a soft toy of some kind. My first Valentine’s Day gift to my wife (fiancée, then) was a big red and white stuffed bear. That poor old, ragged bear was still around until our last move, when we finally had to put it down after 42 years in the family. That give you any ideas, since Valentine’s Day is just around the corner? To this day, I have neither heard nor seen anything indicating the Teddy Bear or any of his cousins have gone out of style… and they won’t for as long as there is a human capacity and need for love, friendship, comfort, affection, security and imagination. 

Happy 120th Birthday, Teddy… and a Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone!

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