NYU Alumni & Friends connect

January 15, 2019

Written by: Emily Rose Clayton (GSAS ’20)

The Teddy Bear: a cute, cuddly companion for everyone from infants to adults. Given as gifts for everything from baby showers to Valentine’s Day, the Teddy Bear is uniquely American, native to New York, and encapsulates the innocence of childhood.

But in 1907, the newly-invented toy found itself at the center of a moral controversy, with newspaper headlines crying “Teddy Bear Denounced” and “Place Ban on Teddy Bears.”

Named after President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the stuffed bear was invented in 1903 by Brooklyn toymakers Morris and Rose Michtom of the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. 

While on a hunting trip in 1902, presidential aides lassoed a young bear for the president to shoot, but he refused to take the “unsportsmanlike shot.” This imagery was picked up in a series of popular political cartoons, inspiring the Michtoms to make the first “Teddy’s Bear,” mimicking the cute and cuddly depictions in the cartoons.

The popularity of the new toy skyrocketed, leading to young children across America abandoning dolls in favor of the Teddy Bear.  By 1907, educators and ministers expressed concern that the Teddy Bear was destroying maternal instincts in young girls, and that they should be taken away in favor of dolls, which would encourage domestic tendencies.

One such educator was Mrs. A. Jessup, who led the sewing department of the summer program at the NYU School of Pedagogy, today the School of Education at NYU Steinhardt.  Beginning in 1895, the School of Pedagogy summer program at the University Heights campus was designed for teachers who were unable to attend classes during the traditional academic year, and trained educators from all over the nation in the latest techniques of pedagogy. Classes ranged from physical education to domestic skills to effective teaching techniques. Educators enrolled in the sewing department were taught the latest methods in sewing, needlework, and basket work, as well as weaving and dressmaking, and encouraged to take these techniques back to their classrooms in the fall.

Mrs. Jessup expressed great concern over the prevalence of the “Teddy Bear craze” among young girls in the New York City schools she visited. In a statement quoted in numerous articles, including “Teachers Condemn Teddy Bears,” she explained her worry: “Formerly as I went about the city visiting the different schools it was always a delight to me to see the little girls sitting about in groups making dolls’ clothes or engaged in some bit of sewing that I knew they had learned in school.  Now instead of these doll clothes scenes I see invariably a Teddy Bear that is the center of attraction and the little hands are idle.”

Teachers in the sewing department put an outright ban on the Teddy Bear with the hope that “henceforth the elaborate devotion showered upon him by schoolchildren will be discouraged.”  Mrs. Jessup’s appeal to ban the bear was picked up by newspapers across America, ranging from Arkansas to San Francisco, while a minister in Michigan took to his pulpit to warn of the dangers of the Teddy Bear.

Like the bear spared by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, the Teddy Bear survived all denunciations and scholarly-led bans.  The original “Teddy’s Bear” now resides in the Smithsonian Collection, a testament to the world’s most popular plush toy.