First Teddy Bear – Washington, D.C. - Atlas Obscura

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First Teddy Bear

The story behind this beloved toy—named for Theodore Roosevelt and owned by his grandson—is more complicated than you might guess. 

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America wouldn’t have one of its most classic stuffed animals, the Teddy Bear, if it weren’t for a strange hunting trip in 1902.

The story that most Americans heard is that President Theodore Roosevelt came across a bear cub and refused to kill it. The reality is a little less heartwarming: on a hunting trip in the American South, Roosevelt balked at shooting a bear that had been trapped by dogs, made unconscious, and then tied to a tree for good measure. The President thought shooting a bear this way was unsportsmanlike. But instead of letting the bear go, Roosevelt asked their hunting guide to kill the bear with a knife, to euthanize it.

By the time it got to Washington Post editorial cartoonist Clifford Berryman’s telling of the story, the bear’s death was omitted and Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot it became an act of compassion. Berryman’s cartoon was published several times, and every time it was redrawn, the bear became smaller and cuter, until the story changed from “President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a tortured bear” to “Teddy Roosevelt let a baby bear go.” That editorial cartoon led to  the Teddy bear phenomenon.

Brooklyn candy store owners and toymakers Morris and Rose Michtom created a stuffed toy bear inspired by this story, which they sent to President Roosevelt. The toy proved so popular that Michtom founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company the next year. The bear on display at the National Museum of American History was made in 1903 and is one of the first bears produced by that company. Michtom’s son, Benjamin, gave the bear to Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of the President, in 1963. In another instance of “it’s not really as cute as it sounds,” Kermit was nearly 50 at the time. He donated the bear to the museum a month later.

Know Before You Go

The National Museum of American History is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except December 25. Admission is free and no advance tickets are needed. While there is no public parking at the Smithsonian, there is limited street parking nearby and commercial parking lots throughout the city.

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