Sitting in a drawer in my house, protected from being turned into a chew toy for the depot puppies, is an old, thread-bared, and well-loved bear, named “Bear.” He is approximately seven months older than I, so he is, in fact, old enough to qualify for our Thursday Senior discount here at the depot. He’s not very big, maybe a dozen inches, and looks like he has been through the wars. He started life in a toy shop in Calgary, Canada and arrived at the Presbyterian manse in Hilger, Montana via a crop duster. I keep him because he is my bear and has been part of my landscape for nearly 60 years.
Most folks, regardless of gender, remember a stuffed critter that defined at least part of their childhoods. For my father, it was a stuffed Steiff schnauzer; for my college roommate, it was a stuffed monkey. Both critters, like “Bear” were thread-bare and well-loved. In an age when toys are defined by electronic movement and the presence of gadgets, stuffed animals remain as one of the few, purely simple toys left.
A very brief history of stuffed critters….
Stuffed critters, the plush kind, have been around for just shy of 200 years (c. 1830), but they were not manufactured commercially until 1880, when Steiff, a German Company, was founded by Margarete and Fritz Steiff (brother and sister) . The first stuffed critter was an elephant and actually started life as a pin cushion. However, being astute, Ms. Steiff noticed that kids were not only drawn to the stuffed critters, they played with them. 132 years later, kids are still playing with them.
The popularity of stuffed animals, however, came to popularity during the original do-it-yourself period during the late 19th Century, when ladies magazines met the Arts and Crafts movement.
1902 and 1903 were banner years in the development of the stuffed critter industry, especially in Great Britian with the introduction of a stuffed version of Peter Rabbit, based on the books by Beatrix Potter, and in the United States when Morris Michtom introduced the Teddy Bear, a critter based on a political cartoon featuring President Teddy Roosevelt and a bear cub. Michtom, a Russian Jewish immigrant, and his wife, Ruth, started the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company a few years later, the same company that brought you Betsy Wetsy and Thumbalina, along with a whole raft of other toys over the years. Like many toy companies, Ideal has since been swallowed by Mattel.
The sock monkey (we carry a sock monkey kit in The Cambria Toy Station) is a far newer stuffed critter, although most folks may think it is older because it harkens back to the “make it at home” movement of the previous century. Sock monkeys were invented during the height of the Great Depression and illustrate what happens when kitsch meets toys. You can thank a sock company out of Rockford, Illinois, the Nelson Knitting Company, for introducing red heels to socks in 1932.
The Teddy Bear was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, the first year the Hall of Fame was established by the Strong Museum.
Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing Wold of American Childhood. Gary S. Cross (1999). Harvard University Press.
Books With Bears
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Robert Southey (1834)
- Winnie the Pooh. A.A. Milne (1926)
- A Bear Called Paddington. Michael Bond (1958)