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Teddy bears are great gifts. They also carry a special history

T.R., the world-traveling, disaster-surviving, story-telling teddy bear, was bought 32 years ago as a Christmas gift. More than a century after their creation, the plush bear toys called “teddy” after an American president remain popular gifts for young and old across the developed world.
T.R., the world-traveling, disaster-surviving, story-telling teddy bear, was bought 32 years ago as a Christmas gift. More than a century after their creation, the plush bear toys called “teddy” after an American president remain popular gifts for young and old across the developed world. Special to the Sun Herald

The most enduring and endearing gift of all time, in my unscientifically based opinion, is the teddy bear.

Do you agree?

Without a teddy bear census, this can only be a non fact-based discussion, although in this age of skewed, opinionated information overload, that’s no big deal. Repeat it enough times and it is true.

So I repeat, “The most enduring and endearing gift of all time is the teddy bear!” Period. Exclamation point.

Who among us hasn’t given or received a stuffed toy bear as a holiday gift, or for an anniversary, a birth or birthday, or for recovery from health and disaster challenges? Or, for no reason other than the teddy’s magical powers to listen and cure all that ails us.

Best of all, teddy bear affection is void of age, religious, ethnic, educational and economic biases.

Before I began this Christmas Eve missive with my own T.R. sitting by the keyboard dictating what I should write, I did what we inquisitors of the 21st Century do: I Googled.

“How many teddy bears are there in the world,” I ask the virtual brain.

Google instantly lists 15 million internet sites with possible results. Luckily I don’t have to go beyond the first screen.

Google’s second suggestion is a message board for The Straight Dope, an online question-and-answer column published in the Chicago Reader and assorted newspapers. It’s a site that attempts to cut through the minutia of misleading and fake information prevalent these days. To accomplish its mission, Straight Dope often chooses logic humor.

The ‘how many’ question

Let’s face it. No one could definitively say how many teddy bears there are in the world. But when the teddy population question first appears on the Straight Dope board, the message board moderator, who signs himself as “Chronos,” personally replies:

“While some collectors have dozens of teddy bears, there are many, many more children than there are teddy bear collectors, so it’s probably safe to ignore the collectors. And some kids have multiples, but some don’t have any, so let’s say about one per kid. And there are some cultures where they’re uncommon, or where most people are in poverty and can’t afford luxuries such as toys, so let’s say it’s just kids in the Western world.

“The combined population of North and South America, Europe and Australia is about 1.7 billion. Of those, let’s say that about a quarter are children, for about 420 million teddy bears in the world.”

Chronos’ answer is as good as any but I suspect adding the adult factor will change it mightily. Studies unveiled on this year’s National Teddy Bear Day claims more than half of American adults still have childhood teddies. Are you surprised to learn that many still sleep with them?

Teddies real and imagined

Through the years I’ve written about my T.R., who is a Katrina survivor, rescued from a pile of sea grass after the 2005 storm. Surprisingly, with black fur still shining, he’s no worse for wear from the ordeal.

Officially, my T.R. is a working teddy, bought 32 years ago as a Christmas present to myself. I justified my purchase by using him as prop when I tell children the story of how all teddy bears trace their roots to Mississippi. This believe-it-or-not tale begins in November 1902 when Theodore Roosevelt comes to the Mississippi Delta to hunt black bears.

This newspaper, like others across the nation, reports his destination is secret because “hunting to a gallery is not to the taste of a sportsman like President Roosevelt.” The surprisingly boring hunt ends when men in charge tie a bear to a tree for Prez Teddy to kill.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of History much later records T.R.’s presidential astonishment: “I’ve hunted game all over America and I’m proud to be a hunter. But I couldn’t be proud of myself if I shot an old, tired, worn-out bear that was tied to a tree.”

A drawing proves its truth

Washington political cartoonist Clifford Berryman captures the scene in his art titled, “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” a reference to the state’s racial inequities. The bear is black, after all.

Rose and Morris Michtom, Russian immigrants who own a Brooklyn candy shop, read about the incident and are inspired to add a bear to the stuffed toys Rose sews and sells in their candy shop.

Morris, as the story goes, seeks permission from the president to give their bears his nickname. Baby boomers, including myself, will have their childhoods enriched by the Michtoms, who soon launch the Ideal Toy Company to bring us such greats as Robert the Robot, Bop the Beetle, Betsy Wetsy and Mouse Trap.

Around this same time a German toy company, Steiff, begins making stuffed bears but of course Steiff has no reason to name them after an American president. Teddy, however, is soon associated with toy bears everywhere. Enduring, indeed!

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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