The Untold Story of the Teddy Bear

It was too large, too stiff and bulky to appeal to a child. That was the general response of toy buyers from the United States and Europe in the fall and winter of 1902, when they were presented with the newest creation of the Steiff Company of Germany – a toy bear.
The Steiff Company, one of the early makers of soft-filled toy animals, was the first to create a bear with a fur-like coat and moveable arms and legs. Margarete Steiff, the founder of the company, had not been sure of its marketability herself, since the plush mohair fabric – a new material then – made it expensive to produce. Designed by her nephew Richard, an art student who had recently joined her staff, it had been inspired by his love of bears and the popularity of the performing bears that could be seen in the circus. The Steiffs were, nevertheless, disappointed in the lack of interest in their newest creation.

It wasn’t until the spring of 1903 that the first purchase of the bears was made. During the last few days of the annual spring fair in Leipzig, where they had displayed their toys, Steiff records indicate that an unidentified toy importer from America found the toy bear appealing and placed a very large order of 3,000. Although the amount of that purchase of the bears was recorded, the Managing Director of the Steiff Company, Mr. Zimmerman, told me in our correspondence in 1988 that, “Unfortunately, not a single document is available giving evidence of the name of that company or the toy buyer’s name.”

At this point, the story matches what I had been told about my grandfather –— that he had made a large purchase of Steiff bears in 1903 as a toy buyer for Carson Pirie Scott & Company of Chicago. This purchase was made at considerable risk, since it occurred near the end of his buying trip and caused him to spend well beyond the budget he was allowed for toys. According to my father’s account, when the order arrived the company’s officials asked him why he had spent so much money on this one item. His response had been that he “just thought it would go over big.” When asked what he planned to name this new toy bear, he persuaded them to call it “Teddy” –— just “Teddy,” which was then referred to, and marketed by Carsons, as the “Teddy” bear. There is no  question that Granddad named the toy bear after the man he most admired, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, because he had spoken so often of his esteem for this popular former president.

The significance of this initial sale, and the enormous size of the order, is it saved the Steiff Company from bankruptcy. This fact was revealed in an award-winning German television production “Margarete Steiff,” directed by Xaver Schwarzenberger with Heike Makatsch, Film-Line Productions. However, since the Steiff Company didn’t have enough toy bears on hand to fill such a large order, I learned from a resident of their town that “everyone in Giengen was asked to help.” I imagine that if the Steiff Company had gone out of business before selling their bear, which was copied by all subsequent manufacturers of toy bears, there might not be a Teddy bear today as we know it.

My father remembered my grandfather saying how surprised he was “at how well those Teddy bears sold.” Although he had great admiration for my grandfather’s accomplishment, my father would joke about this. Imitating people who boast about cornering the market in silver or gold, he would say to us, with a wry smile, “Your grandfather’s claim to fame is that he cornered the market in ‘Teddy’ bears for two years.” I discovered this to be an arbitrary figure, because the next major sale of these bears, which he may not have been aware of, was a little over a year later. The Steiff Company had made some improvements in the design of the toy bear and had placed them on display at the St. Louis Fair in the summer of 1904, where they experienced an improvement in sales. Also, the quality of their toys was recognized when they were honored with several gold medals, including the Grand Prix Award.

Even so, there wasn’t any publicity about stuffed toy bears in the United States until the spring of 1906 when they appeared for sale for the first time in Playthings, the New York magazine for the toy trade. The advertisements, which appeared in April and May of that year, were placed by the only toy companies advertising in that magazine that also had offices in Chicago. Other companies didn’t begin advertising that they were selling toy bears until September of that same year. By November, E. I. Horseman, who began marketing both domestic and imported toy bears, became the first in New York to refer to them as “Teddy Bears,” capitalizing both words. It was well into 1907, however, before they were generally known by that name and became popular nationwide. (See chapters IV and V.) Interestingly, in January of 1907, my father, while traveling with my grandfather on one of his buying trips to Europe, when he was sixteen years old, chose a postcard with a picture of a toy bear on it to send to his five-year-old sister Gretchen. In a letter to her from the town of Gotha in Germany, dated January 27, 1907, he asked her if she had received “the Teddy bear postal.” Since my grandfather named the Steiff bear just “Teddy,” that was the only word he capitalized.

What was it my grandfather saw in the toy bear that other buyers had not seen? I believe he saw it with his heart, not just commercially as others had done. He must have felt the comfort this furry, stuffed bear, with outstretched arms begging for a hug, would give to a lonely child, because in his life he had experienced loneliness and tragedy. Knowing something of my grandfather’s life as I do, and learning the circumstances of that sale, I knew then that his story had to be told.

How It Began
The story of my grandfather who
brought the first
Teddy Bear
to America