Teddy bears are a symbol of cuddly gentleness and security the world over. It is well known that the teddy bear is named for President Theodore Roosevelt. Less well known are the inventors of the teddy bear, Rose and Morris Michtom, two Russian Jewish immigrants who lived in Brooklyn.
The American bear as a symbol of gentleness is filled with ironies. For generations, bears prompted fear, not affection. The teddy bear’s namesake, Theodore Roosevelt, was a ferocious warrior and big game hunter – a man who killed for sport. However, an unlikely alliance between the rugged, native-born American Protestant president and the inventive, immigrant Jewish couple from Brooklyn created one of the most lovable and enduring American icons.
The story begins in 1902. The states of Mississippi and Louisiana disagreed 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 Roosevelt to arbitrate the dispute. Roosevelt decided to combine his tour of the disputed territory with a five-day black bear hunt.
The president’s foray attracted a large contingent of journalists, who reported on Roosevelt’s every move. Even more compelling to the reporters than the boundary dispute was the president’s pursuit of a trophy bear. For four days, the press reported little about Roosevelt’s arbitration of the boundary dispute and harped on the ability of the area’s bears to elude his crosshairs. On the fifth and last day of the junket, apparently to redeem the president’s reputation, one of his hunting companions caught and tied a bear cub to a tree so that the president could shoot it. When he came upon the cub, Roosevelt refused to kill it, saying that he only took prey that had a sporting chance to defend itself.
Roosevelt’s demurrer took the nation by storm. The leading American cartoonist, Clifford Berryman, published a cartoon showing Roosevelt turning his back on the young bear, tied by its neck, and public response to the president’s self-restraint was overwhelmingly favorable. The next day, the Washington Post published a second cartoon, depicting the bear as a more placid beast, cementing the docile image of the young bear even more firmly in the public imagination.
Enter the Michtoms. Morris had arrived penniless in New York in 1887, when only in his teens, a refugee from pogroms. He married Rose and opened a small store that sold notions, candy and other penny items. In the evening, to help make ends meet, Rose sewed toys that they sold in the shop. Like millions of other Americans, the Michtoms avidly followed press accounts of Roosevelt’s journey into the Louisiana backcountry. Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot the defenseless bear touched the Michtoms. Morris suggested to Rose that she sew a replica of the bear represented in Berryman’s cartoons.
That night, Rose cut and stuffed a piece of plush velvet into the shape of a bear, sewed on shoe button eyes and handed it to Morris to display in the shop window. He labeled it, "Teddy’s bear." To his surprise, not only did someone enter the store asking to buy the bear, but twelve other potential customers also asked to purchase it. Aware that he might offend the president by using his name without permission, the Michtoms mailed the original bear to the White House, offering it as a gift to the president’s children and asking Roosevelt for the use of his name. He told the Michtoms he doubted his name would help its sales but they were free to use it if they wanted.
The rest is an amazing – yet characteristic – American Jewish immigrant success story. The Michtoms sewed teddy bears and placed them in the window of their shop, but demand was so great they couldn’t keep up. The couple concluded that there was more profit in teddy bears than in penny candy and dedicated full time to producing them. Because of the doll’s popularity, Roosevelt and the Republican Party adopted it as their symbol in the election of 1904, and Michtom bears were placed on display at every public White House function.
The Michtoms’ labor grew into the Ideal Toy Company, which remained in family hands until the 1970s. Ideal Toys sold millions of teddies throughout the world; yet, their good fortune did not spoil the Michtoms. Ever mindful of their humble origins, supported the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish National Fund, the National Labor Campaign for Palestine and numerous other Jewish causes. While Ideal Toys could not secure a patent on the teddy bear and many imitators entered the market, the Michtoms created an American — and worldwide — icon. Their original teddy bear, treasured and saved by Teddy Roosevelt’s grandchildren, is now displayed at the Smithsonian.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society