Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Teddy Bear was born in Bedford Stuyvesant

This row of well preserved brick buildings with street level retail is located on Tompkins Avenue where Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights meet. Tompkins Avenue is what separates Bedford from Stuyvesant Heights. These fine buildings are not protected by landmarks but walking down Tompkins Avenue you get a glimpse of what it was like to walk down a commercial corridor at the turn of the century. The brick buildings with inset brownstone details and handsome iron cornices has not changed much in the last one hundred years. This one time very busy commercial corridor gave birth to a famous American icon. 404 Tompkins Avenue is the 1902 birthplace of the Teddy bear.

Teddy bears are a symbol of cuddly gentleness and security the world over. It is well known that the teddy bear is named for President Theodore Roosevelt. Less well known are the inventors of the teddy bear, Rose and Morris Michtom, two Russian Jewish immigrants who lived in Brooklyn.

The American bear as a symbol of gentleness is filled with ironies. For generations, bears prompted fear, not affection. The teddy bear’s namesake, Theodore Roosevelt, was a ferocious warrior and big game hunter – a man who killed for sport. However, an unlikely alliance between the rugged, native-born American Protestant president and the inventive, immigrant Jewish couple from Brooklyn created one of the most lovable and enduring American icons.

The story begins in 1902. The states of Mississippi and Louisiana disagreed over the location of their common boundary, which bisected some of the least well-developed land in the United States. The governors of both states invited President Roosevelt to arbitrate the dispute. Roosevelt decided to combine his tour of the disputed territory with a five-day black bear hunt.

The president’s foray attracted a large contingent of journalists, who reported on Roosevelt’s every move. Even more compelling to the reporters than the boundary dispute was the president’s pursuit of a trophy bear. For four days, the press reported little about Roosevelt’s arbitration of the boundary dispute and harped on the ability of the area’s bears to elude his crosshairs. On the fifth and last day of the junket, apparently to redeem the president’s reputation, one of his hunting companions caught and tied a bear cub to a tree so that the president could shoot it. When he came upon the cub, Roosevelt refused to kill it, saying that he only took prey that had a sporting chance to defend itself.

Roosevelt’s demurrer took the nation by storm. The leading American cartoonist, Clifford Berryman, published a cartoon showing Roosevelt turning his back on the young bear, tied by its neck, and public response to the president’s self-restraint was overwhelmingly favorable. The next day, the Washington Post published a second cartoon, depicting the bear as a more placid beast, cementing the docile image of the young bear even more firmly in the public imagination.

Enter the Michtoms. Morris had arrived penniless in New York in 1887, when only in his teens, a refugee from pogroms. He married Rose and opened a small store that sold notions, candy and other penny items. In the evening, to help make ends meet, Rose sewed toys that they sold in the shop. Like millions of other Americans, the Michtoms avidly followed press accounts of Roosevelt’s journey into the Louisiana backcountry. Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot the defenseless bear touched the Michtoms. Morris suggested to Rose that she sew a replica of the bear represented in Berryman’s cartoons.

That night, Rose cut and stuffed a piece of plush velvet into the shape of a bear, sewed on shoe button eyes and handed it to Morris to display in the shop window. He labeled it, "Teddy’s bear." To his surprise, not only did someone enter the store asking to buy the bear, but twelve other potential customers also asked to purchase it. Aware that he might offend the president by using his name without permission, the Michtoms mailed the original bear to the White House, offering it as a gift to the president’s children and asking Roosevelt for the use of his name. He told the Michtoms he doubted his name would help its sales but they were free to use it if they wanted.

The rest is an amazing – yet characteristic – American Jewish immigrant success story. The Michtoms sewed teddy bears and placed them in the window of their shop, but demand was so great they couldn’t keep up. The couple concluded that there was more profit in teddy bears than in penny candy and dedicated full time to producing them. Because of the doll’s popularity, Roosevelt and the Republican Party adopted it as their symbol in the election of 1904, and Michtom bears were placed on display at every public White House function.

The Michtoms’ labor grew into the Ideal Toy Company, which remained in family hands until the 1970s. Ideal Toys sold millions of teddies throughout the world; yet, their good fortune did not spoil the Michtoms. Ever mindful of their humble origins, supported the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish National Fund, the National Labor Campaign for Palestine and numerous other Jewish causes. While Ideal Toys could not secure a patent on the teddy bear and many imitators entered the market, the Michtoms created an American — and worldwide — icon. Their original teddy bear, treasured and saved by Teddy Roosevelt’s grandchildren, is now displayed at the Smithsonian.

Source: American Jewish Historical Society
You can read more here: Teddy Bear


3 comments:

  1. I have been into teddy bears for a long time, this is awesome to know. I need to at least stand at the corner and check out the building. It is a historical landmark that brought so much pleasure to so many children.

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  2. i grew up in bedstuy. i lived on fulton between kingston and tompkins ave. i wish there were photos of this area from the 1950s,1960s, and 1970s. there were alot of things going on back then,the bars, restaurants,record shops. i can name,nats record shop on fulton & kingston ave,the leopard lounge,the melrose bar, the malco bar, Queenies bar,. and als bar at fulton and albany ave. also the Brooklyn Apollo theatre.

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  3. grimbear at barnettart.comDecember 8, 2013 at 1:00 PM

    I would love to know how long that candy store was in existence. I remember my father taking me to a candy store several times when I was little more than a toddler - probably about 1930. Later, maybe around 1943, I met my cousin, Anton Michtom, at a party, I'd been told his family had the Ideal Toy Company. I'd so like to be able to put the intervening years together.

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