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Bearing Up Beautifully - An Introduction to Collectible Teddy Bears

by Carine Engelbrecht

If you look closely, they are everywhere. No children's room is complete without at least one, and toy stores have whole sections dedicated to them, but they can also be found as souvenirs in tourist outlets, as mascots on the sports fields and as romantic gifts for Valentine's Day and Christmas. What am I talking about? Teddy bears, of course.

The History of Teddy Bears

In America, the popularity of teddy bears dates back to a specific anecdote concerning Theodore Roosevelt. In 1902, when on an unsuccessful hunting trip in Mississippi, the then president was offered the opportunity to shoot a tethered bear instead, he refused, an incident which cartoonist Clifford Berryman captured for posterity. The cartoon, entitled 'Drawing the Line in Mississippi', in turn inspired Morris and Rose Michtom to make and display a plush bear in their Brooklyn shop. A craze for 'Teddy's Bears' soon resulted, and the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company was founded as a direct result.

Often, though there is a strange synchronicity to trends. Around the same time, in Germany, Margarete Steiff, a wheel-chair bound seamstress began producing animal toys of plush material. One of her more popular designs was that of a bear cub her nephew, Richard, had sketched in a zoo. Her creations soon found a ready market in the USA.

Early teddy bears favoured a look that was mostly taken from the shape of real bears. Margerete's Steiff's earliest bears were based on sketches of actual bears. Hence the hump on the back was fairly prominent and the muzzle was shaped to closely resemble real bears. Limbs were often exaggerated - broadly curved hips with thin ankles and over-large feet were popular.

Economic concerns during the 1920s to 1930s led to fabric-saving modifications. Limbs shortened. Feet became smaller. Competing companies introduced their own touches. In 1921, Schuco, a company specializing in mechanical toys, introduced the Yes/No bear, a teddy that featured an inner rod connecting tail to head. By moving the tail you could make the bear nod or shake his head. They also produced miniatures and novelty bears, which contained cosmetic items such as perfume bottles, lipsticks and compacts. Another German manufacturer, Gebruder Bing, made mechanical teddy bears, but went out of business in the 1930s.

In the United Kingdom, two well-known fictional bear characters were first introduced in the 1920s.

One was Rupert the Bear, created by English artist Mary Tourtel which premiered in the Daily Express in 1920. Winnie the Pooh, still a firm favourite with children, first appeared in the books of A. A. Milne in 1926. The character was based on a bear by J. K. Farnell, which the author had bought for his son, Christopher Robin. In 1930 Stephen Slesinger purchased U.S and Canadian merchandising rights to Winnie's character. From his colour drawings of Winnie came the trademark red shirt, and he later granted Agnes Brush the right to produce plush toys based on the Winnie character. Disney obtained rights to Winnie and his friends in 1961, several years after Slesinger's death.

In the 1950s, mass production of teddy bears took off. A jointless bear designed by Wendy Boston and the ready availability of synthetic furs all played a role. These bears had the advantage of being washable and cheaper to make. Factories from the Far East began to dominate the soft toy market, leading to financial difficulties for some of the traditional manufacturers. Teddy bears became cheaper, but lost some of their character.

The Arctophiles

The traditional teddy bear got a champion in the form of actor Peter Bull who confessed on television his life long affection for his irresistible furry friends. Thousands of viewers responded, prompting the actor to publish a book about bear collecting entitled 'Bear with me' in 1969. Bull is credited with first using the word 'arctophile', a term now widely used for teddy bear collectors. A large proportion of Peter Bull's collection went to the Toy and Model Museum in London after his death in 1984.

Today, Steiff Bears are the most sought after among collectors. You could expect to pay at least between $3000 and $8000 for a Steiff made in the early 1900s. In 1994, a Steiff bear made in 1904 fetched £110,000 ($158,000) at a London auction. The buyer, Mr Yoshi Sekiguchi, founded the Izu Teddy Bear Museum in Japan.

Of some significance to collectors, are the occasions when history or some other factor impacted on the manufacturing process. All Steiff teddy bears are characterized by a button sewed into the right ear, usually imprinted with the words 'knopf-im-ohr', German for button in ear. The earliest buttons were blank. For a brief period between from 1904 to 1905, a distinctive metal button was used, which was imprinted with an elephant with its trunk raised. In 1940, the 'F' of 'knopf-im-ohr' was not underlined as on most of the buttons used before or since. After the end of World War Two, Giengen, where the Steiff factory is situated, fell in the region controlled by the USA and during the period between 1947 and 1953, Steiff bears were labelled 'Made in US Zone Germany'. Later, the label changed to 'Made in West Germany'.

Are all collectible teddy bears old? Not necessarily. Bear collectors might take note that Steiff has released a limited edition Rupert the Bear for the first time, in 2008. The range features 3000 white Ruperts and 1973 brown ones. The odd number for the brown Ruperts serves to remember 1973, when a printer's error led to an improperly coloured Rupert to appear on the cover of that year's annual.

Hand made teddy bears are popular with collectors. Teddy bear fairs are held annually in regions as far apart as Hilversum, Netherlands, Kyoto, Japan, Sydney, Australia, Cape Town, South Africa and also across the United Kingdom and the United States of America. At any of those, you stand a good chance of picking up something unique crafted by an individual bear artist. Jointed bears made of organic fabrics such as mohair, wool, silk or alpaca, are generally preferred. Miniature bears are sought after for the high degree of workmanship that goes into their crafting.

Caring For Your Collection

If you own a few teddy bears of value, whether old or new, look after them. Too much sunlight discolours. A display stand that is too small or clothes that fit too tight, might indent the mohair of the teddy. Close proximity to pipes, air conditioning units or radiators could make the mohair brittle.

Check the fur regularly for larvae or beetles. If you notice signs of infestations, you need to take immediate action. Musical or mechanical bears will need to be treated by a professional. A few DIY remedies might work with other types of bears. You can for instance isolate an infested bear in a plastic bag and leave it in the freezer for a week or so. Alternatively you could leave the bear inside a bin liner that had been sprayed with insect repellent.

A damaged teddy bear can be restored to its former glory. Stuffing, joints, growlers and eyes can be replaced and torn seams can be re-stitched. Clean mohair bears with a damp white cloth. Brush regularly. Vacuuming can remove dust, but be sure to cover the vacuum cleaner's nozzle with mesh or gauze. Washable teddies were introduced in the 1950s, but do check the label of your bear for washing instructions. Never immerse an antique teddy in water. This will not only harm the fabric, but could also damage joints and rot stuffing. If you cannot display all your teddies, take care how you store them. Safest is to store it in boxes, wrapped in white tissue paper or a white pillowcase - the dye of coloured tissue or fabric might rub off onto the bear. Do not leave a bear in a closed plastic bag which might get damp and cause mould.


There are various resources available that can help teddy bear collectors learn more about their passion. There are teddy bear museums in California, Florida, Indiana, New York and Pennsylvania, not to mention the world famous one in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK (which will soon relocate to Wimbledon) and Berlin, Germany, to name but a few. Magazines such as 'Teddy Bear Times', 'Teddy Bear Scene' and 'Teddy Bear Club International' report on trends and innovations on the teddy bear scene. Starting with 'Bear with me' by Peter Bull (Hutchinson, 1969), several books have been written on teddy bears. These include 'Button in Ear' by Jurgen and Marianne Cieslik (Julich, Germany,1989), 'Collecting Teddy Bears' by Pam Hebbs (Collins 1988), 'The Teddy Bear Hall of Fame' by Michele Brown (Headline 1996 ), 'The Big Bear Book' by Dee Hockenberry (Schiffer, USA, 1996), 'The Little History of the Teddy Bear' by Michele Brown (Sutton, 2001) and 'Teddy Bears – A Complete Collector’s Guide' by Sue Pearson (Miller’s Guides 2001). Some other websites to visit are www.theteddybearmuseum.com and www.mibepa.info.

About the Author

Freelance writer Carine Engelbrecht worked for several years in a store that sold hand made collectible teddy bears.

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