Behold, and hold, the simple teddy bear, a toy with Chicago ties

Rick Kogan

So, where is my teddy bear? 

It's been a while. Is he tucked into a drawer some place? Or in one of the astonishing number of boxes I have in various storage facilities all over town, with old clothes, letters and yearbooks? Or did he just split, take off on his own, around the time I stopped hugging him and started hugging girls?

These questions always arise at this time of year and though there are certainly more pressing matters to contemplate, these bear questions offer a respite for the world's troubles.

It may be true, as it is said in Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things," but the teddy bear is not among those things for me.

Some years ago, in 2003 to be precise, there was a teddy bear exhibit at the Cultural Center. Organized by the city's cultural historian Tim Samuelson, it was a wildly popular gathering of nearly 700 stuffed bears in glass cases. It was called of "Teddy Bears at Home in Chicago" and many of the bears were on loan from their adult owners; Samuelson asked for mine but I couldn't find it. In addition to teddy bears, there were other varieties of the species such as Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington and Smokey Bear. The exhibit also featured children's books, cookie jars, bear-shaped clothing hangers and a record album featuring Elvis cradling a teddy bear.

"Almost everyone in their life has had a relationship with a teddy bear," said Samuelson. They have an appeal to everyone." And as a historian, his exhibition noted the importance that Chicago has played in the bears' popularity.

There is no argument that the bear's name was inspired by President Teddy Roosevelt. On a bear hunting trip in Mississippi, he had failed to make a kill. So his hosts caught a bear, tied it to a tree and invited the president to shoot it.

Roosevelt allegedly said, "Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal."

The next day, Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman captured this event in his drawing above the caption, "Drawing the line in Mississippi."

But, as it often will when being consulted on factual matters, the internet offers a dizzying array of contradictory, conflicting and simply false stories about the bear.

My go-to person on this matter has for some years been Patricia Thorne. She is a writer, photographer, and graphic artist. She lives in Idaho now but grew up here and began her career in advertising in Chicago in the early 1950s.

When she was a little girl, she was given a stuffed bear by her grandfather. She too long ago misplaced that bear but was inspired to write a book about her grandfather and the bear. "Anyone who has ever owned and loved a teddy bear, I think, would be interested in reading my grandfather's story," she says.

In 2012, after many years of research, she wrote that story. "The Untold Story of the Teddy Bear" is a wonderful, touching, lavishly illustrated tale about her grandfather, Albion Parris Thorne. She makes the strong case that this toy buyer for Carson Pirie Scott & Co. is the person who brought the teddy bear to American markets and gave it its name, not long after a buying trip to Europe in spring 1903. There he ordered 3,000 stuffed bears from the Steiff Co. in Germany. As his granddaughter writes, "When the order arrived, the company's officials asked him why he had spent so much money on this one item. His response had been that he 'Just thought it would go over big.'"

He had no idea. The bear sold modestly until 1906 and it was the Cubs that created helped create a sensation, a buying furor.

"I understand from my research that 1906 was the year that the Cubs played the White Sox in the World Series," says Thorne. "It was the excitement over that which led thousands of Cubs fans to discover and buy the teddy bear, on sale at Carson's, as their mascot.

"The enormous sales of the teddy bears by those fans gave the little bear the publicity it needed to set it on its course to fame. By Christmas of that year it had become a favorite toy among children as well."

And it would stay that way for keeps. Of course, there are thousands of stuffed bears available for sale; again; consult the internet and be made dizzy by the variety of styles and prices.

And there you'll find all manner of stabs at explaining the bear's appeal and meaning: "Teddy bears are close enough in their general configuration to a human — outstretched arms, a gentle gleam in their eyes — to have an obvious potential to be a comforter, like a mother"; "It's a pure gift with no strings attached, without making any demands, because the teddy bear just says, 'I care about you and want you to feel safe and warm.'"

Thorne told me that her book has made its way into the Chicago History Museum, the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at the Harvard Library and the national archives at the Smithsonian Museum. It can be had and you can read an excerpt online

She also said, "My grandfather was a great fan of the Cubs. When my grandmother died, he took an apartment close to Wrigley Field so he wouldn't miss any of their games."

So, I searched the internet. I looked on eBay. No bear looked familiar. So maybe I will be able to find it somewhere in all my stored, forgotten stuff. With all the tension, fear, hatred and uncertainty in this world, I know it would do me some good just to see that old bear again.

*This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune and is reprinted with permission of Rick Kogan.

Photo source: Elaine Coorens



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