Going on a (historical) bear hunt

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Teddy Bear, circa 1907, maker unknown. Gift of Mrs R Sadler, 1988. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (GH003585/1)

New Zealand is in the third week of COVID-19 lockdown. We may be (temporarily) short of flour and other grocery items, but one thing we are not short of is bears. In houses all around the country, there are teddy bears in windows, allowing children to take part in a bear hunt while out walking around their neighbourhoods with their families.

Teddy bears are now such a well-established part of many people’s childhoods, and such a source of comfort and nostalgia, that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Yet they only date to the early twentieth century, and it’s fascinating to look back to the period when they were still a novelty to New Zealanders.

Teddy bears get their name from an incident involving United States President Theodore Roosevelt, a keen hunter. In 1902 Roosevelt was on a hunting expedition in Mississippi and, unlike the rest of his party, he had failed to kill any game. His assistants managed to chase down and corner a black bear, tying it to a tree and suggesting that Roosevelt shoot it, but Roosevelt considered this unsporting and refused to do so. Or so the story goes. The story was publicised in the media, and became the subject of a famous cartoon by Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman.

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Washington Post, 16 November 1902, LC-USZ62-34274, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

This cartoon (and especially a more developed version which can be viewed here) was somewhat misleading in depicting a relatively small and cute bear being held at the end of a rope by an apparently white man. In fact, the bear was full sized and had been captured by Holt Collier, who was African-American, a former enslaved man and soldier and a famous bear hunter.

The cartoon inspired Brooklyn candy store owner Morris Michtom to create a stuffed bear toy. He received Roosevelt’s permission to call it ‘Teddy’s bear’, and in 1903 he established the Ideal Toy Company to manufacture the bears. In the same year, and apparently independently, the Steiff company in Germany also began selling its famous stuffed bears.

It took a few years for teddy bears to become known in New Zealand. In 1907, Wellington’s Dominion newspaper could still ask: ‘How many people in New Zealand know what the strange creature called a Teddy bear is? Probably not more than half a dozen’. At that stage the bear was still being reported as an American novelty, and it didn’t meet with immediate and universal approval.

An editorial in the Lyttelton Times saw ‘the vogue of the “Teddy bear” in America’ as another sign that the early twentieth century was an age of frivolity: ‘The toy beast appeals to children because it has a warm, soft coat, and to adults because it has a touch of the grotesque in its composition, but its importance is perhaps not fully appreciated outside America.’ It quoted another newspaper which asked ‘why fashionable women [in America] drive round nursing Teddy bears while their own children are being nursed by negro women.’

The ‘Woman’s World’ column in the Dominion in January 1908 noted that the American fashion for Teddy bears had been criticised for failing to develop the maternal instinct in girls, in contrast to dolls. However, ‘it has yet to be proved that the little girl who dislikes dolls necessarily dislikes babies’. There was more, ‘Woman’s World’ thought, to the argument ‘that ugly fantastic toys should not be given to children’ and that ‘a plain straightforward animal’ would give more pleasure.

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While some early coverage of teddy bears associated them particularly with girls and women, the teddy bear quickly became a toy equally beloved by girls and boys. Boy with teddy bear on steps, 26 November 1933, Wellington, by Leslie Adkin. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (A.006294)

By December 1907, teddy bears were already said to be the dominant Christmas toy in London, and they were appearing in New Zealand too. The DSC department store’s Christmas advertisement advised Aucklanders to:

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Auckland Star, 13 December 1907, p. 7

In 1907 the American composer John Walter Bratton composed the song ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ (you can see the original sheet music here), although the now-famous lyrics were not written until 1932. By December 1908 this ‘latest musical craze’ had made its way to New Zealand.

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Press (Christchurch), 21 December 1908, p. 1

Reports in 1909 that the Teddy bear craze was passing in America proved premature, but the New Zealand Truth complained that surplus stocks were being offloaded in New Zealand, where ‘an effort is being made to boom the farcical fad.’ Truth was quite vitriolic about the ‘inane “Teddy bear” toy’ which ‘comes from the land of putrid canned meat’.

Truth‘s anti-Americanism was not necessarily typical of New Zealand attitudes, however. The popularity of the teddy bear can be seen as symptomatic of a period when America was rising as a world power and the influence of its popular culture was increasing. Nothing better illustrated the growing political and cultural authority of the United States in New Zealand than the warm reception for the ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1908. Which brings us back to Teddy Roosevelt…

(To be continued)

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