To investigate the paternity of the Teddy Bear, first meet Theodore Roosevelt who served as the twenty-sixth President of the USA at the turn of the last century, from 5661/1901 to 5669/1909. Please do not confuse him with his fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt the Second, who served as President during World War II.
Besides raising the USA to world-power status during his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt had the distinction of coining Maxwell Coffee’s trademark when he remarked, after sipping a cup of their elixir, “Good to the last drop.” Another of his distinctions is that he was the only US President to lend his name to a toy.
How did this happen?
Like most people on our planet, Theodore Roosevelt was plagued by paradox. Despite a great love for nature that inspired him to create America’s first national parks, he was also a ruthless hunter who thought nothing of slaughtering dozens of wild animals for the “sake of sport,” a weird concept that the Jewish mind finds reprehensible and incomprehensible for good reason.
After all, as the famous Yerushalayim maggid, Rav Shalom Schwadron, used to say, sport for sport’s sake is what drove Amalek to attack the Jews when they left Egypt. What greater sporting event was there than to leap into a bath of scalding water and emerge burnt, but alive to tell the tale!
Although Roosevelt was a friend of the Jews and no Amalekite, he possessed enough sporting instinct to instigate a trail of events that shaped the genesis of children’s favorite friend, the Teddy Bear.
The story began in 5662/1902, when the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana invited Roosevelt to come down and resolve a border dispute between their two states. Since the disputed area was one of the wildest regions in America, Roosevelt decided to combine business with pleasure and simultaneously organized a five-day bear hunt. With a cadre of friends, officials, dogs, equipment, and pressmen, Roosevelt set out to decimate whatever wildlife was foolish enough to step into his crosshairs.
However, the local bears were uncooperative, and for four days, papers throughout the States reported that the President’s game bag was empty. Desperate
to maintain the President’s reputation as a crack big-game hunter, a group of attendants pursued an American Black Bear with hounds, tied it to a willow tree, and led Roosevelt up to the wounded victim to deliver the coup de grace.
To their amazement, the President turned down their offer, explaining that it would be unsportsmanlike to kill a bear that had no chance to fight or flee.
“Spare the bear,” he declared. “I will not shoot a tethered animal.”
Now, bearing in mind that this bear was a snarling, snapping full-grown specimen that had just killed a hunting dog, how did this episode lead to the creation of the cuddly Teddy Bear?
As news of the story hit America’s pressrooms, a famous cartoonist, Clifford Berryman, lent visual impact to the story with a cartoon that depicts Roosevelt confronted by a bear, which, although marginally cute, is as large as the President himself.
By the next day, however, in order to lend even more pathos to the story, an article printed by the Washington Post published a revamped cartoon that now depicted the victim as an adorable, cuddly bear cub. This second cartoon was spotted by a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, and history was in the making.
Morris Michtom had arrived in the Goldene Medina in 5647/1887 and discovered that the streets were not paved with gold. Although he and his wife, Rose, probably did better than they would have in the Old Country, their Brooklyn candy store brought in so little cash that Rose had created a sideline business, sewing stuffed animals and putting them for sale in their shop window.
Since many Americans were agog at the president’s refusal to kill a defenseless bear, Morris told his wife that it might be a good idea to cash in on public sentiment and add a stuffed bear to her repertoire.
That very night, Rose cut a piece of plush velvet to size, stuffed it, sewed it, and added a pair of button eyes. Morris propped her new product in the shop window and to ensure that no one missed the connection between their new product and current events, labeled it “Teddy’s Bear.”
Passersby were enthralled and, in record time, a dozen people had walked in to buy the cute toy. Morris gave it to none of them. Instead, he mailed it to the President as a gift, and asked his permission to use his name as its trademark. Ironically, some time later, Roosevelt’s Republican Party used the Teddy Bear as their trademark in the 1904 elections.
When people began buying Teddy Bears faster than the Michtoms could produce them, they went into mass production in partnership with the Butler Brothers Company, and before the year was over, they closed their candy store and founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company that survived until the Seventies.
Actually, the story is not that simple. True, the Michtoms coined the Teddy Bear’s name. However, it is not certain whether they sewed together the first such toy, since a German toy firm produced a very similar toy bear that same year, exhibited it at the 5663/1903 Leipzig Toy Fair, and exported 3,000 of them to the United States. Who made it first to the starting line remains a historical mystery.
Truth to tell, this little episode was by no means Theodore Roosevelt’s first Jewish connection and certainly not the last.
He was generally benevolent to Jews, such as the time when he was serving as Police Commissioner of New York, and Pastor Hermann Ahlwardt, a well-known anti-Semite, arrived in New York to deliver diatribes against the Jews. Roosevelt found himself between a rock and a hard place as, on the one hand, Ahlwardt was asking him for police protection while, on the other hand, the Jewish community was begging him to cancel the priest’s talk altogether.
“Of course, I told them I could not – that the right of free speech must be maintained unless he incited them to riot,” Roosevelt said later. “On thinking it over, however, it occurred to me that there was one way in which I could undo most of the mischief he was trying to do.”
What was Roosevelt’s one way? He appointed a Jewish police sergeant to provide the preacher’s protection, and instructed him to take thirty or forty Jewish police officers with him. The huge Jewish contingent protecting the preacher made him appear so ridiculous that his lecture circuit came to an abrupt end.
Another amusing incident occurred when Roosevelt was running for state governor of New York in 5659/1899. At the time, most of the hard-working Jews of New York were Democrats and Roosevelt’s Republican supporters understood they would have a difficult time persuading them to cross over to their side. They resolved to appeal to Jewish sentiment by citing two historical episodes.
During the previous year, when the US was helping Cuba gain independence from Spain during the Spanish- American War, Roosevelt and his regiment had distinguished themselves at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba.
Now, the Lower East Side turned into a sea of Yiddish flyers, urging Jews to vote for Roosevelt who had taken vengeance against Spain for exiling its Jews in 5252/1492. The pamphlet explained how Roosevelt, as Secretary of the Navy, had worked out a naval assault and then, “at his own expense, organized a Regiment of Rough Riders and went to the battlefield to meet the foe . Under Roosevelt’s command, there were many Jewish Rough Riders. Roosevelt was like a brother to them. He recommended them to the President for promotions, and sang their praises to the world.”
“Every vote for the COLONEL OF THE ROUGH RIDERS is approval of [President] McKinley and the War,” the flyers continued. “Every vote for Roosevelt’s opponent … is a vote for Spain … Can any Jew afford to vote against Theodore Roosevelt and thereby express his disapproval of the war against Spain? Vote for Theodore Roosevelt. Vote to express your approval of Spain’s defeat.”
Needless to say, not too many Jews were won over by this logic and Roosevelt lost the New York election by 60,000 votes.
As President of the USA, Roosevelt showed sympathy for the Jews, issuing a statement after the Kishinev pogroms of 5663/1903 expressing, “the deep sympathy felt not only by the administration, but by all the American people for the unfortunate Jews who have been the victims in the recent appalling massacres and outrages.”
He also became the first American President to appoint a Jew to the presidential cabinet, when he made Oscar S. Straus Secretary of Commerce and Labor, in 5666/1906. Later, this became a source of embarrassment when he attended a charity banquet organized by the half-deaf Jewish millionaire, Jacob Schiff.
Standing before the podium, Roosevelt gave his version of why he had given Straus the job:
“When this country conferred upon me the honor of making me the President of the United States, I, of course, at once, called my good friend, Oscar Straus, to my side and asked him to serve as Secretary of Commerce. It was not a question of religion, of politics, or of catering to any specific group. It was simply a matter of the best man for the job.”
Schiff, who had not heard one word of the President’s speech stood to speak, and soon the President was wishing he could bury himself beneath the floorboards.
“President Roosevelt has been so kind in the past as to honor me with his confidences, and it was a great thrill to me that, when he became President, he told me he wanted to have a representative Jew in his cabinet,” Schiff began. “He asked me who might be the best candidate to represent our people. I had no hesitation in, at once, saying that Oscar Straus was the ideal man and, I believe, as a result, he named Mr. Straus immediately as his Secretary of Commerce.”
Whatever his motives for appointing a Jew to his cabinet, Theodore Roosevelt was good for the Jews, even if not as cuddly as his feral namesake.
(Sources: Birmingham, Stephen. Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York. Syracuse University Press, 1996; Miller, Nathan. Theodore Roosevelt: A Life. Quill Books: New York, 1992; “The Jewish Teddy Bear, ” American Jewish Historical Society; “Teddy Roosevelt, Jewish Avenger, ” American Jewish Historical Society.)