Many young children have had a love affair with a stuffed animal since infancy. It gives them a sense of security; it’s sometimes the next best thing to having Mommy’s warm and familiar body cuddling and caressing them.
Their stuffed buddies are always understanding and consoling, no matter what the crisis. Give them green, orange, and blue tattoos with permanent markers? “No problem,” they assure you. Sent to your room for shooting your little brother with a slingshot? “That’s okay. I still love you,” your furry friend reassures you. You’re suffering with coughing, sneezing, sniffling, runny nose? “Give me a hug,” he or she offers. “I’ll make you feel better.” Or maybe you just want to sit and watch the world go by with your pal. (But not for long!)
And your best stuffed childhood friends can last for years and years and years. Who needs two ears and two eyes? So what if a little stuffing is coming out? They’ll see you and hear you and comfort you anyway.
When they get older, kids turn the tables and imaginatively play “Mommy” or “Daddy” with their plushy dependents, providing loving care or doling out discipline.
Of all the stuffed animals that have been handmade or bought from store shelves since the turn of the twentieth century, the teddy bear has been the standard-bearer, not only in the United States but worldwide.
Did you know that teddy bears were named for President Teddy Roosevelt after an incident during a hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902? As I discussed in my post 100-Year-Old Storyteller: Interview With Helen Geiszler Part 2, Roosevelt refused to shoot a tethered bear, and when that anecdote made the rounds of political cartoons, it started the ball rolling with a Brooklyn candy shop owner placing two “Teddy’s Bears” in his shop window. Their popularity induced the shop owner, Morris Michtom, to mass produce teddy bears, leading to the creation in 1910 of the now renowned Ideal Toy Company. Read more from the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
Teddy bears continued to be wildly popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s. From a poor family with no phone or car and few toys, even Helen owned a teddy bear.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, nearly all young girls owned a teddy bear. My family had three stuffed bears: a rather large brown one, a smaller brown one named Boo Boo (imagine that), and a panda named Andy Panda. We siblings were so original!
Those three bears were students in my make-believe classroom. I would sit my baby dolls and three bears around a chalkboard and teach them reading, English, spelling, and arithmetic.
What I remember best is the tragic story of Andy Panda, poor thing. There was a red Irish Setter in the neighborhood that often got loose and roamed around on our street. One day when I was playing with Andy in the back yard, the dog charged in, sank his teeth into Andy’s belly, and proceeded to romp across the yard with him. Panicked, I chased that hooligan around and around like a Keystone cop after a robber. I pulled and pulled, shook and shimmied; you’d have thought I was a contortionist doing the hully gully.
I guess the setter got tired of the “game” because he finally relinquished poor Andy but not before my beloved panda got covered with dirt, grass stains, and dog slobber. Tears streaming down my face, I ran to my mother, who assured me that Andy would be as good as new once she washed him.
Sadly, this tale did not have the storybook ending that my mother had envisioned because when Andy came out of the washer, his lovely white fur had turned an unseemly shade of purple, his black fur having bled onto his white fur. At least my dear Andy was still intact, and there was no long- term psychological damage or post traumatic stress syndrome, as he was still one of my high honor students.
When I was just now looking for a photo that came closest to my Andy, I came across this drawing, which looks very much like him. The artist, Fiona James, included a little anecdote that sounds much like mine: “This is a drawing of my cuddly toy panda. He looks old and battered, and that’s because he is! He’s been with me since I was a very small child. He’s been drolled on, vomited on, drenched in tears and mauled by the family dog (hence the sewn up left ear). He’s seen me through good times and bad. He’s a faithful friend and I love him.”
My childhood passed, and I went off to college. For three summers, I worked at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. I left there with a whole crew of stuffed animals, some that I won myself and some that were won for me by various boys. I never did win a teddy bear, but there were plenty of them at the assorted games, verification that teddy bears were still popular in the 1970’s.
Further evidence: I got married in 1975 and had my first child, Frank, in 1977. Shortly after he was born, he had already accumulated two teddy bears as gifts. I still have them:
I had my second child, my daughter Leslie, in 1980. Within a few years, teddy bears took on a whole new meaning in the persona of a new sensation . . . the Care Bears.
Though Care Bears originated in 1981 as characters on greeting cards, the plush bears burst onto the toy scene in 1983. They were like no stuffed bear we had seen before. Each plush character came in a different color with its own special “tummy symbol,” later called “belly badge,” that represented its duty and personality. Nearly all young girls had one. Here are the original Love-a-Lot Bear on the left and Birthday Bear on the right.
Here is my daughter Leslie at age 5 with her tap dance class on the day of their performance in 1985. Every girl used a Care Bear in the show. Leslie is sitting on the floor, second from right, holding the green Good Luck Bear. His tummy symbol is a green four-leaf clover.
And here she is with her new Cheer Bear on Christmas morning 1985.
Here is a close-up of Cheer Bear, whom we still have.
Care Bears became so popular that they appeared in TV specials in 1983 and 1984, followed by their own TV series and feature films from 1985 to 1988.
The bears were relaunched multiple times from 1991 to the present, introducing new characters, movies, and TV series. In 2002, new Care Bear lines included illuminated bellies upon touch, aerobic bears, and glow-in-the-dark bears. As recently as November 2015, Netflix premiered a new series called Care Bears and Cousins with 6 episodes.
Care Bears merchandise can still be seen in the form of stuffed bears, books, clothing, school supplies, gummy bears candy, even cell phone covers, and more.
Besides Care Bears, are ordinary teddy bears still popular? Well, according to my 3-year-old grandson Andrew, they are. As you can see below, Andrew and his YuYu bear are constant companions.
One of my favorite photos is this one of Andrew’s pizza party with his bear friends.
He has another bear buddy named, appropriately, Blue Bear.
Back in May, my husband Frank and I visited Leslie and her family in Houston, and we took a side trip to San Antonio. Well, we were strolling Andrew, who was two and a half at the time, and Blue Bear by the River Walk. After taking the boat tour on the San Antonio River and walking back to the car, we discovered that Blue Bear was missing. We looked around but couldn’t find him. He must have fallen out of the stroller, and no one—not even Andrew—had noticed.
Come bedtime, Andrew was asking for Blue Bear. Leslie tried to distract him and even gave him his brother Mikey’s stuffed pencil that he had won at a game booth. That satisfied Andrew, but the next night he was asking for Blue Bear again. Leslie knew that he was not going to stop asking for his buddy bear, so she started searching online for an exact replica. It took a while, but she found one on Amazon. Two days later, when we were back in Houston, the imposter came in the mail. We don’t think that Andrew realized Leslie’s chicanery; he didn’t seem suspicious of the cleaner, fresher Blue Bear. At any rate, he was happy to have Blue Bear back to snuggle with in bed.
So there you have it. From the original Teddy Roosevelt teddies to the Yogi and Boo Bears of the 1950’s and 60’s to the Care Bears of the 1980’s to all the YuYu Bears and Blue Bears of the 21st century, they continue to be loved by little boys and girls everywhere. Teddy bears are the bomb. Teddy bears rule!
Epilogue—Two days after I published this post, I got this from Leslie: Poor YuYu Bear was “accidentally” kicked in the toilet yesterday by big brother. Fortunately, he is nice and fresh again today after a bubble bath in the washing machine. We managed to keep Andrew unaware of the incident.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.