How the nation’s favourite soft toy enchants us
At auction, there is huge market for the broad field known as “collectables”. Across an incredibly diverse range of items which includes stamps and coins, medals and sporting memorabilia, an eternally popular category is collectable toys.
As a nation, we have long been smitten with the classic teddy bear; now regularly seen as a gift of love, or a soothing welcome toy for a new baby. At auction, collections of modern soft toys are sometimes offered, but most popular and sought after are the earliest and most unique teddy bears.
The teddy bear as a concept was born in 1902 on a hunting trip in Mississippi. During the expedition, President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a captured defenceless bear, and the incident drew a large amount of national attention, even being depicted as a political cartoon in popular newspapers.
Inspired by the cartoon, New York shop keeper Morris Michtom, and his wife Rose, created a bear made of stuffed fabric, which they displayed in their shop window, with a sign reading “Teddy’s bear”.
At around the same time, a German company run by seamstress Margaret Steiff began designing a plush bear of their own. Their first bears were designed by Steiff’s nephew, Richard, who had modelled them on real-life bears he had sketched at the zoo. Steiff’s classic mohair bear with jointed limbs debuted at a German Toy Fair in 1903.
In 1930, William Gordon Holmes, owner of a spinning mill in Yorkshire, created the now renowned Merrythought bears. Their beautiful creations were made from luxurious natural fibres in a brick foundry in Ironbridge. Their very first collection was quite remarkable in that it was designed by Florence Attwood, a pattern maker who was both deaf and mute, and who created the iconic original Merrythought bear.
Early teddy bears, usually made from mohair, are often distinguishable by their closer to real-life features, such as extended snouts and beady eyes. More modern bears have gravitated towards a look intended to capture a more baby-like sweetness, with larger eyes and foreheads and small noses.Culturally, the widespread impact of the teddy bear could not have been foreseen during the era of its creation. During the early twentieth century, the song the Teddy Bears picnic was produced, and a series of children’s books known as “The Roosevelt Bears” was released. Over the course of the century popular mass marketed bears such as Rupert, Sooty, Paddington, and later Pudsey Bear continued to ensnare children and adults alike with the simplicity of their charm.
Due to their culturally imbued symbolism of comfort and kindness, teddy bears are now often given to children in hospitals or following emergencies, as a uniquely dependable token of calm and care.
Early teddy bears by the most famed makers, particularly in good condition, can be scarce to find, and thus command great popularity and high prices at auction.