A Short History of Bears





A Short History of Teddy Bears

When Teddy Bears are mentioned, the first name most people think of is Steiff and indeed they produce what are perhaps the finest bears available. The company has stood the test of time and hold the highest prices on record at auction for Teddy Bears. There is some confusion as to whether Steiff were the first to introduce Teddy Bears or the American Company Ideal. 

In Germany during the latter part of the nineteenth century, Margarete Steiff founded what became the most famous name associated with Teddy Bears. She was born in 1847, but contracted polio as a very young child and this resulted in her being confined to a wheelchair. By the late 1800s she had a substantial business with numerous employees and outworkers, selling her little felt toys. Margarete`s nephew Richard had studied at art school and began to collaborate on bear design suggestions with his aunt. In 1902 Richard designed a bear with jointed arms and legs and found a German company to produce the mohair used in the bear`s production. These early bears were made of mohair, stuffed with wood wool and had boot button eyes. The limbs were long and the pads were of felt. The real turning point came in 1903 when towards the end of the Leipzig Toy Fair, George Borgfeldt of New York placed a substantial order for the teddy bears he had seen on their stand. By 1907 the company was international, with over two thousand workers and producing near two million toys each year. In 1904, the famous Steiff button in the ear was developed as their trademark. When still present on old bears, these help in many ways to identify the age of the bear.

Other German companies of note are Gebruder Bing who started producing plush toys in 1907. The first of their bears had a button in its ear with the initials G.B.N. (which stood for Gebruder Bing of Nuremberg). Their use of a button was stopped after a court action by Steiff. Early Bing bears had humps and black boot button eyes. They also produced mechanical bears in the early 1900s. As Bing stopped producing bears in the 1930s, their bears are very difficult to find. In the 1920s and 1930s Schuco (Schreyer & Co.) manufactured a variety of mechanical and also novelty bears of all sizes -including those with head movement. Also at this time, miniature bears were made - some in the form of perfume bottles or ladies compacts and in a variety of coloured mohair. The company continued in bear production until the 1970s. Gebruder Hermann is another German company which started production in 1912 and is still producing teddy bears.

In America, Ideal Toy Company were reputedly inspired by “Teddy” Roosevelt`s exploits in 1902 when he refused to shoot a live bear cub. This resulted in the production of “Teddy” Bears - and these started selling widely. Ideal are thought by many to have produced the first teddy bears.Other American bear manufacturers worth looking out for include Knickerbocker who produced bears from the 1920s for about sixty years. Heclar was another company who made bears in the early 1900s, similar in shape to the German bears, but the company was short lived and their bears are rare.

The older companies producing Teddy Bears in Britain were Farnell, Chad Valley and Chiltern Toys. Early Farnell bears perhaps being the most desirable of the British producers - the first being made in about 1908. They had long arms and large feet with webbed claws and boot button eyes. Early Farnells were unmarked, but paper labels were introduced in the 1920s and subsequently an embroidered Alpha Toys label was sewn onto the foot. The company continued until the 1960s. 

Chad Valley began their teddy production just after World War I. They were prolific manufacturers and their bears are quite distinctive with large cupped ears. Most have glass eyes, were stuffed with kapok and had felt pads. Whilst a celluloid button was used in the 1930s, later bears had embroidered foot labels. Earlier noses were triangular in shape, but became rounder and thicker on later bears. Chad Valley was granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment in 1938 for being toy makers to Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother). Woolworths bought the Chad Valley name in the 1980s and production was no longer based in the UK.

Chiltern produced their first bear in around 1916 and this was called Master Teddy. An unusual bear with googly eyes and dressed in a shirt and trousers. The head, arms and legs were made of mohair and the body of cloth, but production of more conventional bears started in the early 1920s with the Hugmee range. This bear had a large head , glass eyes and the body was stuffed with excelsior wood wool. Later Hugmee bears had round ears which were sewn into the facial seam. Limbs were shorter and paws were of velvet whilst the face was more heart shaped. Whilst most bears has stitched shield shaped noses, some from later production in the 1960s had plastic noses. The company became part of Chad Valley in the late 1960s.

Deans Rag Book Company produced toys made from cloth in the early 1900s and bears from plush were first made during the the First World War. From the 1920s numerous new bear designs were introduced. Deans used both felt and velvet for paws and during the 1930s produced some fine bears in bright coloured mohair and art silk plush. The Tru to Life bear designed by Sylvia Wilgos in the 1950s was a realistic bear with paw pads made of rubber with moulded claws. It is a rarity today as the pad material has tended to deteriorate over time. Most Deans bears had the company logo on a label stitched to the foot or within the side seam. Production continued until very recently.

Merrythought started producing bears in the 1930s. The earlier bears had a celluloid button in their ear, whilst later examples had an embroidered, subsequently printed, foot label. Heads were filled with wood wool and bodies of kapok. The webbed claw stitching is distinctive as are the noses which are rectangular with longer downward stitching to either end. The arms tend to be long, turning up at the ends. Merrythought generally used good quality golden mohair but also produced coloured bears in the 1930s. Their most famous designs were the Bingie Bear in the 1930s and the Cheeky bear which had a large round, domed head, ears (with bells) sewn onto the side of the head, and a very wide smiling mouth stitched onto a velvet muzzle. It was produced first in the 1950s and until the company ceased production recently, was produced in a vast quantity of sizes and materials. 

Generally, bears produced in the early 20th century had boot button eyes, but these were being replaced with glass by the 1920s. At first bears were of simple construction and colour, but after the 1920`s to coin a phrase “Anything goes”, and there were some marvellous designs in bears produced in numerous sizes from the miniature to the huge, with head and tail moving mechanisms, musical boxes and wonderful colours of mohair. 

Now in the twenty-first century, Teddy bears are as popular as ever. Whilst only the odd early Company still exists in production, bear artists produce fine new designs. However, there is a special magic and character about the old bears and luckily many have been looked after and are still available in the secondary market for collectors. What tales they could tell……