Cute and cuddly doesn't totally explain how teddy bears have endured a century as arguably the most popular toy ever. Many plush animals are cute and cuddly. Teddy bears aren't just any stuffed animal.
For many children, they are the first object of affection, a confidant, a fuzzy embodiment of comfort, solace and security at bedtime. For some adults, they are a powerful symbol of those same needs.
The emotion-loaded mystique they possess explains why hundreds of stuffed bears -- not stuffed rabbits or Barbie dolls -- are left at makeshift monuments to victims of tragedy, from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to the massacre at Columbine High School. It's why one of the most memorable images from the Moscow theater seized by Chechen terrorists was a little girl clinging to her teddy bear.
Many people know the toy is named for Teddy Roosevelt, but they don't know the circumstances that started it.
In November 1902, President Roosevelt went bear hunting in the woodlands of Mississippi. After several days, he hadn't seen a bear.
The guide's hunting dogs finally sniffed out a small bear, chased it to exhaustion and attacked it. The guide fetched the president, but Roosevelt was dismayed to find the dazed and suffering bear tied to a tree. He refused to shoot the creature, considering it unsportsmanlike, but demanded it be put out of its misery.
When Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman heard the story, he sketched a scene of Roosevelt declining to shoot the defenseless bear.
Berryman knew a good hook when he drew one and continued to sketch the bear into cartoons -- only the image quickly evolved from the scrawny original into a rounded, big-eyed, cute little cub that became the model of the cuddly teddy bear.
Inspired by Berryman's cartoon, New York shopkeeper Morris Michtom displayed two stuffed bears sewn by his wife, Rose Michtom, in his shop window at $1.50 each. The sign called them "Teddy's Bears." Soon, public demand led the couple to turn their shop into the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co. and begin manufacturing teddy bears.
Without the cartoon, "there definitely wouldn't have been teddy bears at all," says Frank Murphy, author of "The Legend of the Teddy Bear."
Meanwhile, German toymaker Margarete Steiff, who introduced plush bears at about the same time, began marketing hers as teddys as well. In four years, teddy bear popularity had spread worldwide, and the Steiff company was selling about a million annually.
Tweed Roosevelt, the great-grandson of the president, is a Boston investment banker and a spokesman for the Steiff Co. He has given a lot of thought to "the complex and mysterious phenomena" of the teddy bear.
"The teddy bear has come to represent all that is good about humans with none of the bad," he says. "This is very important for children, because all the other sources they turn to are mixed. They love their parents, but parents on occasion censure or discipline. Siblings can on occasion be mean, friends fickle, etc. The child creates in the bear only the positive, never threatening or judgmental. This kind of unique relationship carries over, perhaps unconsciously, to adulthood, and we turn to teddies often without knowing why."
Each holiday season, from Sacramento to Peoria to New York, burly Hell's Angels on Harleys appear with teddy bears tucked under their tattooed biceps -- donations for needy children.
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