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A Point of View: The grown-ups with teddy bears


The historian David Cannadine considers the enduring appeal of teddy bears for both children and adults.

A few days ago, I read the obituary of an extraordinary man named Sir Robert Clark, who'd been born in 1924. During World War II, he was recruited to Churchill's Special Operations Executive, and he was later parachuted behind enemy lines in Italy, where he was captured and incarcerated as a prisoner of war.

Thereafter, having been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, he became a major figure in the City of London, and the British government often called on him for advice. He was remembered by one colleague as being "a wonderful man, as clever as could be, but very humble with it". Behind his facade of urbane charm and unfailing politeness, there was a strong will and steely nature.

Sir Robert Clark died in January this year in his late 80s, and when reading his obituary I was particularly struck to notice that at the age of two, which must have been in 1926, he'd been given a teddy bear that he called Falla.

Throughout Clark's long and varied career, Falla accompanied him everywhere, even when he was parachuted into enemy territory, and while he was a prisoner of war. Perhaps in gratitude for Falla's unfailing loyalty, Sir Robert Clark later became an ardent collector of teddy bears, eventually accumulating more than 300 of them.

But such a story of lifelong devotion between man and bear is by no means unique. John Betjeman adored his childhood teddy, whom he named Archibald Ormsby-Gore, and Archie later became the model for Aloysius, who was owned by Lord Sebastian Flyte, in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

But although we take teddies for granted today, as the stuffed animals of choice in both fact and fiction, they've only been an integral part of childhood - and also in many cases of adulthood, too - since the early years of the 20th Century. And for that, we have to thank the American President, Theodore Roosevelt, who was known as Teddy, and after whom stuffed bears have ever since been named.

In 1902, which was only a generation before Robert Clark was born, Roosevelt went on a bear-hunting trip in the state of Mississippi, at the invitation of the governor. One day, after a long, exhausting chase, some of Roosevelt's friends cornered an American black bear, which they tied to a willow tree, and they called upon the President to shoot it. But Roosevelt deemed such a request unsporting, and this episode was later immortalized in a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman published in the Washington Post.

Quite by chance, Berryman's cartoon was noticed by a Russian Jewish immigrant to America named Morris Michtom, who by day sold candy in his store in Brooklyn, while by night making stuffed animals with his wife Rose. Thus inspired, Michtom duly created a stuffed bear cub, and he put it in his shop window, accompanied by a sign that read "Teddy's bear", having already sent an earlier version to Roosevelt, who promptly gave him permission to use his name.

The new toy was an immediate success, and the sale of teddies was soon so brisk that Michtom went on to establish the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. At almost the same time, and apparently by entire coincidence, stuffed bears were also being introduced to Germany, where they were first manufactured by Margarete Steiff, who'd been making soft toys since the 1880s, and who'd recently been joined in the business by her nephew Richard.

It was Richard Steiff who created his own version of the teddy, which he exhibited at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903. His bear was also an instant hit, and soon the Steiffs were exporting thousands of teddies to Britain, the US and other parts of the world.

Thereafter, the advance of teddy bears to global dominion has been inexorable. Nowadays, there are shops which sell only teddy bears, there are teddy bear museums in many countries, and teddy bear festivals regularly take place in Australia, the US, Britain, Canada, Germany and Japan.

Meanwhile, and as the example of Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited suggests, teddies have long since become a permanent cultural fixture as well. In 1920, Rupert Bear first appeared as a children's comic strip character in the Daily Express.

Soon after, AA Milne published Winnie The Pooh, and the central character was a bear named after a teddy owned by his son.

In 1932, the song Teddy Bears' Picnic, with music by John Walter Bratton, and words added by Jimmy Kennedy, became one of the hits of its time.

Twenty years later, the puppet bear Sooty, created by Harry Corbett, made his first appearance on BBC television, and in 1958 Paddington Bear began his illustrious career, celebrated in his bronze statue on the London railway station from which he takes his name.

Here are bears aplenty, providing whimsy and comedy, diversion and entertainment, for a mass public audience, as well as the comfort and the companionship that they gave to such men as Sir Robert Clark and Sir John Betjeman.

They are as much literary creations to be read about as they are manufactured artefacts to be purchased and owned.

Yet in many ways these are odd and even inexplicable developments. Beyond doubt, real bears are extraordinary and magnificent creatures. But whether brown or grizzly or polar, they are more vicious predators than cuddly pets, and human beings are well advised to avoid them in the wild.

And what if Teddy Roosevelt had been given a different first name, or had declined the invitation of the governor of Mississippi? Would stuffed bears have become such popular products during the subsequent 100 years?

These are some of the unanswered questions of teddy history. But what cannot be denied is the extraordinary appeal of bears, whether stuffed or real.

When I was growing up, millions in Britain swooned over Brumas - a polar bear born in Regent's Park Zoo, London, in 1949 - the first bear to be reared in captivity in the UK.

image captionA hit at the children's zoo at Whipsnade in 1962

More recently, another young bear named Knut, born in the Berlin Zoological Gardens, became an international media phenomenon whose life was celebrated and whose death was mourned around the world. And giant pandas have frequently prompted similar levels of interest and sentimental attachment.

Perhaps it's that bears represent the happy security of a childhood friend who never changes or lets you down. For whatever reason, teddies appeal to both children and adults of all ages, in ways that stuffed elephants or tigers or monkeys or ostriches or dolphins never quite do.

Nowadays, it's impossible to imagine a world without teddies, which means the stuffed bear must rank as one of the 20th Century's most remarkable inventions and most enduring creations.

When Sir John Betjeman died, he was holding Archibald Ormsby-Gore in his arms, and in death, as in life, Falla was with Sir Robert Clark to the very end. As an antidote to the dying of the light, or to the ending of the day, teddies are always with us.

How many of you, I wonder, will be taking your bear to bed this evening? I wouldn't dream of asking.

And shall I myself be taking mine? I wouldn't dream of telling.

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