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11/16/1902 Washington Post cartoon by Clifford Berryman, "Drawing the Line in Mississippi"

11/16/1902 Washington Post cartoon by Clifford Berryman, "Drawing the Line in Mississippi"

Everyone knows that the teddy bear is named after the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, but they may not know why.

It happened in November of 1902. Teddy Roosevelt was on a bear-hunting trip through Louisiana and Mississippi. It was an “exasperating” hunt, said Roosevelt, and after five days, he never got a shot. Out of pity, his companions corraled and roped a bear for his prey. But Roosevelt refused to kill a defenseless animal. The press printed the story and the public applauded their president’s restraint. But the story really caught fire when a political cartoon appeared on the front page of the Washington Post two days later, with cartoonist Clifford Berryman portraying Roosevelt as “turning away with disgust, with sloped rifle,” from a “very black bear being roped around the neck by a very white catcher.” (1)

Berryman was commenting on Roosevelt’s race relations. Roosevelt thought that “negroes” as a group were far inferior to whites. He, however, also believed that individual blacks could rise to social heights. In 1901, he became the first president to invite a black man to the White House when he sat down to dinner with African-American educator Booker T. Washington.

Anyway, whether or not the readers of the Post picked up on Berryman’s allegory is not what we remember today. What is recalled is that the cartoon sparked a full-scale teddy bear craze. (2) The public fell in love with the cartoon bear. People wrote and begged Berryman to draw more “bear cartoons,” which he did. In subsequent cartoons, he made the bear rounder, smaller, and cuter, and thus all the more endearing with its prickly pear ears,  imploring eyes, and scraggly fur.

Skip to a candy and toy shop in Brooklyn. Shop owner  Morris Michtom had seen Berryman’s cartoon. He asked his wife Rose to create a stuffed bear like the one in the cartoon.

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.” (3)

To Michtom’s surprise, not just one but a dozen customers wanted to buy the bears. Michtom received Roosevelt’s permission to use his name on his product and began the mass production of the cuddly toy bears which sold for $1.50.

Oregon family c.1900 with prized family teddy bear

Oregon family c.1900 with prized family teddy bear

Today the teddy bear craze is still going strong and we think of teddy bears as being toys for children. But, back at the beginning, women bought the teddy bears for themselves, made them clothes they read about in Ladies’ Home Journal, and carried them with them everywhere.

(1) Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. Random House: New York, 2001.
(2) History.com: http://www.history.com/home.do
(3) Jewish Virtual Library: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org

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