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  • Teddy Bears: A History and Collector's Guide by Lorraine Hitchings

    Richard Steiff, father of the teddy bear. (Image courtesy of Steiff GmbH, Teddy Bears: A History and Collector's Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    Brimming over with myths and legends about his past, the Teddy Bear it seems, has been a huge part of our lives almost forever. Many people believe they own a Teddy from Victorian times or even earlier but, the truth is, he only entered our lives in 1902 and even then, the first bears (because he was not known as 'Teddy' until later) looked nothing like the cuddly creatures we know and love today. It was all thanks to Germany and to a man named Richard Steiff who became known as the father to the Teddy Bear. His aim was to create a soft toy that children could cuddle, as during those times toys were made of hard stuff like wood and even metal. Even dolls of those times were made of very hard materials.

    The first bears made by Steiff were rather harsh looking and also quite hard to the touch. The truth is, we needed to give him time to evolve.

     

     

    An early American-made teddy bear named Mississppi, who lost an eye sometime in the past. (Teddy Bears: A History and Collector's Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    Those rather magical two words that we know so well 'Teddy Bear' came just a little bit later and for this we have to thank America, or to be a little more accurate to both President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt and to a small shop keeper from Brooklyn, New York named Morris Michtom. Without these two people adding their mix to his evolution, who knows, we may not ever have heard of the Teddy Bear.

    Very quickly the Teddy Bears name spread across both sides of the Atlantic and by 1906 many toy companies in the United States began to produce their very own versions of him. Companies like the Ideal Company, Bruin Manufacturing Company (BMC) and the Strauss Manufacturing Co. Inc starting up teddy production.

    It was to be a while, however, before England started making Teddy Bears as many toy manufacturers believed him to be just a fad. However, by the start of the First World War, they were just beginning to realise his importance and English Teddies began to trickle through. The first makers being the London based firm of Farnell (famous for producing the world's Most Famous Bear – Winnie the Pooh). It was this company who, during the Great War, produced what we now call 'Sweetheart Bears' or 'Soldier Bears'. These were tiny teddies that were made especially as soldiers’ mascots and often given by their sweethearts, before leaving to fight abroad. Such was the popularity of these little bears that other companies began to create their own versions.

    The revoluntionary Wendy Boston bears were certainly a new generation of teddy. (Teddy Bears: A History and Collector's Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    By the end of the First World War many companies, both in England and Europe, were producing Teddy Bears. What really pushed the manufacture in England was the fact that due to German products being banned from the country, we found ourselves somewhat teddy less.

    Between the two world wars manufacturers, both in England and Germany, found it difficult to find materials to make their bears. Steiff looked at many different alternatives to mohair, including would you believe, nettles and wood, eventually coming up with their amazing 'Paper Plush' Teddy.

    It was points like this in history along with the latest fashions that has changed the way the Teddy looks, from his whole body shape, to the colour of his fur coat. During the twenties, for example, ladies made the Teddy Bear a fashion item and because of the vibrant colours of that era, the teddy took on many new and bright colours. A German toy manufacturer named Schuco produced some adorable little teddies in many different colours and many of these bears carried a secret – when their heads were taken off they revealed a lipstick or even a compact. These bears were made so well that today many has survived to tell the tale and they are now extremely popular with collectors around the globe.

    One of the biggest changes in the Teddy Bears lifetime was during the 1950's and 1960's when Health & Safety issues arose. For the first time in his life he was called dirty and unhygienic.

    Ted Hart, a Merrythought bear from 1958, who is still owned and loved by his original owner. (Teddy Bears: A History and Collector's Guide, Amberley Publishing)

    A new Teddy Bear design had to be found and for this part of his evolution, we have to travel to a small town in Wales called Crickhowell. The lady we have to thank is Wendy Boston. Along with her husband Ken, they produced some of the most iconic (and in my opinion beautiful) teddies of that era.

    Wendy Boston Bears looked very different from any other teddy ever made that is for sure. This was because they were fashioned from completely washable nylon fabric and even the stuffing was fully washable. These bears became famous, not because of their looks but because they could be washed frequently in a washing machine and not only that, but they could be put through a mangle. As well as being fully washable and so termed hygienic, they were also fitted with modern 'safety eyes' whereas older bears had glass eyes fitted on a metal shank which could easily be pulled out of the bears head.

    Wendy Boston Bears sold in their thousands all around the world and many bears have survived to this day and once again sought after by collectors and I would note that, at the moment they come at a very affordable price.

    The Teddy Bear continued his journey, every decade showing up yet another problem for him, but still he carried on. When the Eighties came, of course, his personality shone, when a new age of Teddy Bears hit the scene. Firstly, manufacturers jumped on the collecting band wagon, making Limited Edition Bears. Often these bears were sold out before they even hit the shops. Artist Teddy Bears also hit the market and these bears, took the market by storm.

    No matter how much the Teddy Bear has evolved because in our hearts he is still 'Teddy' our best friend, lifetime companion and keeper of secrets and for me that is all that really matters, but I have to admit, his history is just incredible.

    Lorraine Hitchings' new book Teddy Bears: A History and Collector's Guide is available for purchase now.

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