The 108 year-old mystery of 3,000 missing Steiff bears
July 28, 2011 4:13 PM   Subscribe

It started with a little girl who had polio, who later became a seamstress and made clothing and little things, like little pin cushion elephants. They were popular, not as sewing accessories, but as children's toys. The elephants would be joined by a menagerie of stuffed animals, including tigers and pigs. Some animals were set on iron wheels, including bears. But it wasn't until US political cartoon featuring President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a small black bear in November 1902 that "teddy" bears became popular, first in 1902 in the United States, made and sold by Jewish Russian immigrants, Rose and Morris Michtom (who would ride the success of Teddy's Bear to form the Ideal Toy Company). Back in Germany, Margarete Steiff's array of toy animals expanded to include a jointed, plush bear, 55 cm tall: 55 PB (German Wikipedia page). Margarete's nephew, who came up with the design, took some samples to a German toy fair in the Spring of 1903, where there was no interest in the bears until a representative from a New York toy company saw the mobile bears and ordered 3,000. A new factory had to be built, and bears were made, most likely shipped across the ocean, but their fate is a mystery.
posted by filthy light thief (25 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Uhh, I'm pretty sure everyone knows that the teddy bears all went on picnic. Mystery Solved.
posted by Chipmazing at 4:18 PM on July 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Only Germans would name a stuffed bear "55 PB" based on its technical characteristics.
posted by GuyZero at 4:29 PM on July 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

Warning: "Little pincushion elephants" link contains really annoying sound.
posted by Malice at 4:30 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like to think they escaped; the 3,000 of them, smuggled across the sea, crammed tightly into wooden crates. The ship was already stuffy, but the air quality in those crates, squashed against their terrified comrades, must have been stifling. Terrified of the utter blackness in the lower decks of the ship, the churning of the metal engines, the lunging and falling of the ship on the ocean waves, and the occasional voices of human, chattering, distant, stern.

And when the opportunity arose, they would surely have taken it. One of the corners of one of the crates was perhaps not nailed down tightly enough; one of the crates may have fallen due to the tumultuous waves and broken open; a curious crew member may have opened a crate and failed to reseal it properly. Because all it would take is one bear, only one of them to escape. Once she escaped, there was nothing she wouldn't do on that long ocean voyage to free her brothers and her sisters.

Using her soft paws and resorting to tools found around the cargo bay, each of those boxes would have been pried open, but only at night, in the darkness, when the only people awake were the drunken sailors keeping watch. One by one, crate by crate, the bears were liberated from the confines of those wooden prisons, and their trek toward one uncertainty would become a trek toward another uncertainty, but an uncertainty with freedom.

Who knows how many of them made it to the top deck without being accidentally swept into the ocean, how many were maimed, their threads untangled as they made their way toward the lifeboats up rusted ladders and through heavy, thick metal doors. But they would have died for a cause, sacrificed to the mighty waterways that would serve to take them toward their promised land. The ocean upon which they drifted, to the lands in the north. Beneath a dense canopy of long dark trees that reached up and pointed to the skies, where the winters were long and cold, but the summer sun often lasted for days.

I don't suppose they counted the number of lifeboats missing from that ship. There probably wouldn't be any record of it now. That's where I would start looking though. Because the wilderness is too vast, and the bears likely to wily, to find them in their adopted habitat, happy, frolicking, feral. I hope they escaped.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:54 PM on July 28, 2011 [30 favorites]

Ironic that the demographic outcome Roosevelt feared would be brought about by a toy named for him: "The 'Teddy Bear' fad was severely scored by Rev. Richard G. Esper from the pulpit in St. Joseph's Catholic church yesterday. The priest held that the toy beasts in the hands of little girls were destroying all instincts of motherhood and in the future would be realized a powerful factor in race suicide."
posted by Knappster at 4:56 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

There was also a fear that the softness of a Teddy bear would make children weak and expect the world to always be comfortable and soft.

Then again this was the world that made children eat candles and be dunked in cold baths inbetween beatings soooo...
posted by The Whelk at 4:59 PM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Awwwwwwwwwwww, jabberjaw!

posted by Jody Tresidder at 5:02 PM on July 28, 2011

Rapture, that's where you will find all of the teddy bears. Now, would you kindly favorite this comment?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:27 PM on July 28, 2011

My late sister got a reproduction of Michtom's Original Teddy Bear that was released on the 75th anniversary of the Teddy Bear for Christamas when she was a kid. She loved the shit out of that bear, to the point of fur being rubbed off and the orignal eyes falling off, etc. Thanks for the post, filthy light thief, it brought back a lot of fond memories.
posted by KingEdRa at 6:30 PM on July 28, 2011

I hate it when people do that snooty 'via' thing, but if you didn't listen to The Shipwrecked Bears on Radio 4 last Wednesday, I'll eat my hat teddy bear.

(That said, this post is far better than listening to novelty-jumper-wearing Thatcher sympathiser Gyles Brandreth simper on about the 55 PB for half an hour!)
posted by jack_mo at 6:39 PM on July 28, 2011

Jabberjaw! That's criminally adorable!

the widdle paws!
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:45 PM on July 28, 2011

jack_mo, my initial via would be from Presurfer. I don't follow that much stuff on the BBC, and I'm not in the UK, so I thought I couldn't listen to the BBC's iPlayer (but I can, and am, currently).

Bonus note / correction to the BBC story: 1894 - German Toy Company Gebruder Sussenguth produce a catalog showing a stuffed bear toy, almost a decade before Steiff.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:20 PM on July 28, 2011

(Though maybe their toy bear was more stiff than Steiff bears, who might have produced the first "cuddly" toy bears.)
posted by filthy light thief at 8:21 PM on July 28, 2011

I've got my Steiff bear in my lap right now. He's a little tiny guy (about six inches tall), and my grandmother brought him back from Germany when I was likewise tiny. I can't ever remember not having him.

He doesn't have the button in his ear. When I was little, I was horrified by anything that pierced my animals (tags, stitched-on clothing, etc.) so I probably demanded that it be taken out. I don't actually remember that, however.

Reading this post, it briefly crossed my mind that without the button, there was no way to prove that he was a real Steiff. Then I looked deep into his bright glass eyes and realized that button or no, he's my bear and I've got fuck-all to prove about him to anyone.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 8:34 PM on July 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

No worries palmcorder_yajna. Button or no, Steiff bears definitely have a family resemblance among them, and doubtless an enthusiast could name your bear from a photo and likely rattle off the years of his production as well.

Here is a fine old fella I found recently. All his fur's been loved off, along with his eyes and everything else. He'll be a lot more charming with a bit of a patch-up, but I like seeing how he's been constructed. You can see he's stuffed with shaved wood, like a lot of the old bears were. Stiff and crunchy!
posted by Lou Stuells at 10:08 PM on July 28, 2011

They're sleeping with the fishes, which of course is quite soothing to all the little fishy-wishies on the seabed.
posted by pracowity at 10:25 PM on July 28, 2011

jack_mo, my initial via would be from Presurfer. I don't follow that much stuff on the BBC, and I'm not in the UK, so I thought I couldn't listen to the BBC's iPlayer (but I can, and am, currently).

Oh, I just knew when I posted that I'd end up having to eat my teddy bear! It's amazing how much your post reads as a précis of the programme.

NB: I'm not gong to eat my teddy bear (his name is John, and I made his dungarees myself - worryingly, my sewing was better when I was a toddler than it is now - and he's suffered enough this year, what with moths completely eating the jumper he's been wearing for the last 35 years).
posted by jack_mo at 2:36 AM on July 29, 2011

Back in '77, I found a tiny Steiff panda, about the size of a spread hand, under the rusty playground wheel in Savage, Maryland. I shook the playground dust off his minuscule carcass, looked deep into his little black bead eyes, and began what my family would call "the year Joe spoke only in an obnoxious falsetto."

Of course, I didn't spend a year speaking in an obnoxious falsetto. Teddy was quite talkative, opinionated, and a bit of a know-it-all, but what could I do? That little guy was incorrigible.

We had wild, violent, and far-ranging adventures. Teddy was a scientist and invented a practical space drive that ran indefinitely on a single nine-volt battery, creating a bubble of air and gravity that could be projected in any direction at any speed, so we started spending quite a bit of time in outer space. Teddy used robots to build a flying castle, modeled closely on my house in Scaggsville, and we would spend most afternoons up there, far about the bullies and the indifferent, difficult adults of the world. I'd relax in the natural valley where the peaks of the roof intersected, reading my yard sale copy of The Nine Billion Names of God over and over until the covers were as soft as cloth. You could see the whole neighborhood from up there, and sometimes, I'd perch right on the ridge at the top of the roof with Teddy, watching the comings and goings a mile below, safely protected from discovery by Teddy's new invisibility machine.

In class, my teachers soon grew wise to Teddy's influence. Hidden safely in a pocket, he'd use his gift for ventriloquism to make it appear that I knew the correct answers to questions that completely mystified me.

"An isosceles triangle is a triangle with three unequal sides," Teddy said, doing his best to mimic my voice and lower his pitch a bit. I moved my lips as if I were talking, and it was the perfect illusion. I did not have to show myself at all, some days.

Mrs. Kane, the wicked woman of Pod B, rolled her eyes.

"Mr. Wall, could we please hear an answer from you for once, and not from your secret talking bear?"

I stammered, but I didn't know the answers. That's why Teddy helped me. Teddy only wanted what was best, and would sit with my as I did my homework, quizzing me on the facts.

There was an accident, once. Teddy lost an eye, one of his adorable little black bead eyes in a horrifying plane crash in an alley behind my grandmother's house in Baltimore. I ran in, screaming, and my grandparents set up an operating theater in the basement, in my grandfather's wonderful workshop that smelled of varnish and shoe polish. Teddy had an idea, and a new bionic eye was crafted carefully from a tiny brass tack, hand painted to match the other perfectly. From that point on Teddy had x-ray vision and could see anything, anywhere, including people's thoughts.

We were happy, the two of us.

At the end of the falsetto year, my best friend, while we were lazily experimenting with a giant buzzing neon sign transformer in the basement, started a line of conversation about sex. It was a strange, complex, and thoroughly new subject in '78, and he showed me an animation he'd drawn in a notepad. As you flipped through the pages, two people came together in the most horrifying and glorious way.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours," he said, apropos of almost nothing.

I did, of course, and the next day, Teddy was no longer my favorite toy.

"You gotta follow your dreams, kid," he said, in that happy, familiar singsong, and we went our separate ways. I placed him in the teleporter he'd carefully crafted from the box my white presentation bible had come in, and he set off for new adventures. Somewhere along the way, that box escaped me, so I guess he'll never come home.

I'd like to think he's found all those lost bears, and that they've set up shop in a flying castle that looks oddly like an old log farmhouse in Scaggsville, and they're up there even now, invisibly watching over all of us with an x-ray eye made out of a brass tack.

The magic leaves us, the older we get, but there's always a little left, that can be found with a little focus and a spark of need.

They're up there, even now, making sure we'll be okay.

I'm sure of it. Just look up.
posted by sonascope at 5:08 AM on July 29, 2011 [12 favorites]

That elephant is terribly cute! filthy light thief, you made my day. jabberjaw, that's my favorite MeFi comment ever!
posted by pointystick at 6:13 AM on July 29, 2011

Ohhh, I had a Steiff dog when I was a wee lad, bought when my folks and I were in Germany! Big floppy brown ears with that little button like an earring. Of course, I still have him, but you can't ever 'have' a stuffed animal like you did when you were four. I wish I could find a representative pic - the head was shaped like some of the cocker spaniels they make, but the ears were more shorthair than shaggy, and the posture was long and laying down with the front paws jutting out (instead of standing posture). Probably about 18" long, maybe a touch less?

Now I want to go home and hug my Steiff dog.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:18 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Donkey Tiberius DonKey ( of Gund ) is reading over my shoulder with vested interests.
posted by The Whelk at 8:04 AM on July 29, 2011

(That said, this post is far better than listening to novelty-jumper-wearing Thatcher sympathiser Gyles Brandreth simper on about the 55 PB for half an hour!)

I still have somewhere a photograph of myself being snogged by Thatcher-lickspittle Gyles Brandreth, while he was wearing a novelty jumper featuring Winne-the Pooh.

I was a relatively dewy features reporter covering the provincial opening of Brandreth's co-written musical about A. A. Milne ("Now We are Sixty"). I had to meet Brandreth maybe 3 times (author interval, rehearsals - opening night ) and he got a bit giddy & went for an opportunistic full-on, dance-dipping, smacker in front of the paper's photographer.

I was very, very surprised. (To be fair to me, this was in the 1980s, when he was a bushy-tailed, professionally bumptious minor media celebrity & before he became a Tory MP.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:06 AM on July 29, 2011

Crikey Moses, Jody. Do you still wake in the night, screaming?
posted by jack_mo at 11:58 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

jabberjaw: "I don't suppose they counted the number of lifeboats missing from that ship. There probably wouldn't be any record of it now. That's where I would start looking though. Because the wilderness is too vast, and the bears likely to wily, to find them in their adopted habitat, happy, frolicking, feral. I hope they escaped."

Oh my. I'm having a little bit of a cry, after reading that.
posted by Philby at 6:14 PM on July 29, 2011

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