It’s hard to imagine what childhood might be like without a giant teddy bear – or without any teddy bear for that matter. But, back when soft toys were not yet even an idea in anyone’s mind, children managed to ‘survive’ until the teddy finally came along in 1902. It was only a matter of time before the giant teddy bear would soon follow.
In today’s plush toy market, just about every animal and insect imaginable, is now replicated in soft toy form from miniature to jumbo. Like with dolls, the facial features of a soft toy are the attraction, which is then closely followed by its ‘fur’ and how it feels and then the stuffing. Margarete Steiff was disabled by polio when she was a child and she made felt clothes to sell at her workshop in Giengen near Ulm, in Germany. Her first felt animal was made in 1880 an elephant. Its creation was intended for use as a pincushion, but it quickly became a child’s toy. Within six years, more than 5,000 such elephants were made and sold and then a whole range of soft animals all made of felt, followed. By the time 1893 rolled around, where Margarete exhibited her creations at the Leipzig Fair, she no longer ran just a workshop but a factory that exported its soft toys.
The characterizations of the Steiff Company’s animals, was all made possible by Margarete’s nephew Richard. He had been to art school, but was intrigued by the relationship he observed between humans and animals when he visited the zoo. The detailed drawings he made of the animals he watched at the zoo, were made into designs that were suitable to sell at the Steiff company. Included in this were bears, but it wasn’t until 1902 where, in the United States, a sitting U.S. president would be responsible for catapulting the bear into the iconic status it still enjoys today.
President Theodore Roosevelt, known as Teddy, liked bear hunting. A bear he came across while out pursuing this pastime, was taken pity on by the president and he refused to shoot her. The story of the soft-hearted president made its way to the press where cartoonist Clifford Berryman created a caricature of Roosevelt with his bear and published in the Washington Post. Steiff didn’t waste any time and made bears out of a plush new material made from mohair and exhibited them at the Leipzig Fair, the year after Roosevelt’s ‘adventure.’ This particular bear in no way resembled the ferocity of the real thing; it was soft and stood on its hind legs with its front legs operating as arms; it also sat on its rear end like a toddler and most importantly its facial features were friendly large clear eyes, small snout, and a slight grin on the mouth. Toy buyer from New York, Hermann Berg, visited the Steiff stand at the Leipzig Fair and bought 3,000 of the plush bears to sell at his department store. Between 1903 and 1908, the Steiff bears became so in demand, they were forced to expand the factory three times just to be able to cope with the increase in production nearly 1 million bears per year.
The giant teddy bear, is, of course, a direct result of the one first produced by the Steiff company. And with it, children across the world became very lucky indeed. It’s hard to say what the fate of the giant teddy bear would have been had not all the right circumstances lined up to make it come to ‘life.’ After all, it could have been a rabbit that President Roosevelt decided to save instead of that bear.
Angeline Hope is a collector of giant teddy bear animals. You can view a selection of giant teddy bears at MyBigPlush.
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