How A Run-In With A Real Bear Inspired The Creation Of The Teddy Bear

Millions of people grew up with a beloved teddy bear or other stuffed animal that might have gotten so old and worn that the stitching began to fall out or an eye or two popped free. Some people have collections of Beanie Babies in the tens of thousands, and starry-eyed first loves still flock to convenience stores to pick up a snuggly teddy bear for Valentine's Day (via Daily Mail). One of the all-time classic children's toys, millions of teddy bears are still sold to this day, as "passions for these stuffed animals run deep, as deep as the memories of childhood," according to the Chicago Tribune.

But many owners of furry stuffed animals may not be aware of where the teddy bear came from. That makes sense since, as the Chicago Tribune relates, at least three countries lay claim to the toy's invention. One popular story attributes the "teddy" part to President Theodore Roosevelt, a noted outdoorsman, with the toys produced in bulk starting in the early 20th century (via History).

A hunting trip

The American version of the story begins in Mississippi in 1902, where President Teddy Roosevelt was on a bear hunting trip. According to the National Park Service, Roosevelt was a good hunter, but he had not been able to kill a single bear during the trip. (At the time, bear hunting had no restrictions, leading to the eventual near extinction of black bears in the Southeast, per The Wildlife Research Institute.)

One of Roosevelt's assistants, Holt Collier, cornered, clubbed, and tied up a bear to a willow tree to let his boss kill it. However, Roosevelt refused to kill the bear, according to the National Park Service. As the legend says, Roosevelt thought it was "unsportsmanlike to kill a defenseless animal that way," according to History. The Chicago Tribune quotes Roosevelt as saying, "Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal." That sounds about right when paired with the famous proverb that Roosevelt often spouted during his presidency — "Speak softly and carry a big stick" — which in part meant to only strike or lash out at other countries or enemies if you had thought it through and were seriously prepared for the consequences (via the White House).

A political cartoon was inspired

Word spread quickly about Roosevelt's refusal to shoot the bear, and it made national news, per the National Park Service. A couple of weeks later, the political cartoonist Clifford Berryman portrayed the scene in an illustration in The Washington Post on November 16, 1902, titled "Drawing the Line in Mississippi" (via the National Park Service). Per History, the cartoon was meant to signify not only that Roosevelt was honorable in not shooting the bear, but that he had fairly disputed a boundary line between Mississippi and Louisiana. 

Eventually, the combination of the news of the hunt and the cartoon that portrayed it inspired what is now known as the teddy bear. News trickled down to a shop owner in Brooklyn, New York named Morris Michtom, who in partnership with his wife decided to make a lovable stuffed animal and name it after the 26th president, per History. Perhaps coincidentally (and perhaps not), stuffed toy bears made their appearance around that time in Germany and England, reports the Chicago Tribune, with the Brits' version nicknamed teddy in honor of King Edward VII, who bore the nickname of — what else? — Teddy. The Michtoms, however, had received the president's permission to use his name on their stuffed products, and it stuck, eventually leading to their company, Ideal Novelty and Toy.