Throwback Thursday – Happy Birthday, Teddy Bear!

Roosevelt, Camp Wikoff Mascots, 1898

Black and white photograph of Teddy Roosevelt at Camp Wikoff with the camp’s mascots, which returned from the Spanish-American War with the troops

Al Holden Collection

Montauk Library Archives

Readers might well ask what this photograph of soldiers playing with a mountain lion, a dog, and an eagle at Camp Wikoff in Montauk in 1898 has to do with the invention of a stuffed animal by two Brooklyn candy store owners on November 18, 1902. The connecting thread is Theodore Roosevelt, the man in a white uniform who was petting the bird and also a major lover of animals. 

As many people know, the teddy bear was born after Roosevelt refused to shoot a live bear that had been pre-lassoed for his convenience. “I’ve hunted game all over America and I’m proud to be a hunter,” he is rumored to have said, according to the National Museum of American History. “But I couldn’t be proud of myself if I shot an old, tired, worn-out bear that was tied to a tree.”

After a cartoonist turned the incident into widely circulated political satire, Rose and Morris Michtom, who owned a candy store, created a stuffed bear named Theodore Roosevelt, and then a bear cub named Teddy’s Bear. Sales skyrocketed, they founded the Ideal Toy Company, and “by 1908 the bear had become such a popular toy that a Michigan minister warned that replacing dolls with toy bears would destroy the maternal instincts in little girls.”

Teddy Roosevelt seems to have been a magnet for animals stuffed or live. During his presidency, which started in 1901, his family had a small bear, a lizard, guinea pigs, snakes, a badger, a pig, a hyena, a rabbit, a one-legged rooster, a pony, a hen, a macaw, and countless dogs. 

The eagle at Camp Wikoff had been a gift to Roosevelt’s troops from the governor of New Mexico which they in turn presented to their leader. Cuba, the dog, had participated in the Spanish-American War in some fashion not clearly described at the time in the Long Island Traveler. The mountain lion hailed from the battle of Santiago in Cuba; a Traveler reporter described it as having arrived via the transport San Marcos, which moved troops from the south to Camp Wikoff:  “It differs in looks somewhat from the American cat and is very tame. It will climb up and go to sleep in the laps of the passengers.”

Evidently the animal was not quite that gentle, if one believes an account in the Sag Harbor Corrector:

“A little son of Mrs. Chelberg of this place who was visiting the Rough Riders camp on Wednesday got too near the chained Rocky Mountain lioness Josephine, which is one of the mascots of the regiment. The beast, which does not like children, made a spring at the boy, knocking him down, tearing his clothing and lacerating the flesh of his leg. Fortunately the men beat the brute off before more damage was done, but both mother and child were dreadfully frightened.”

In the early 1960s, Roosevelt’s by then elderly daughter asked the Michtoms’ son, after he offered her one of the original teddy bears if she would pose with it to promote its 60-year anniversary, “What does a 79-year-old doll want with a 60-year-old bear?” After she declined, Roosevelt’s great-grandchildren, instead, posed with the stuffed animal, then hid it just for a time to prevent their parents from passing it along to the Smithsonian as the parents had promised.

The bear was delivered to the Smithsonian in 1964, and now it’s just one year shy of 100.

Happy 99th birthday, teddy bear!


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