Curator Ken Yenke provides a behind-the-scenes look at the new Chelsea Toy Museum.
Chelsea, Mich., is located west of Ann Arbor and east of Jackson, where the legendary Richard Steiff lived in the 1920s and 1930s. Richard is, in the opinion of many experts, the creator of the first teddy bear. So it is fitting that the site for the Chelsea Teddy Bear Co.’s Chelsea Toy Museum—dominated by teddy bears—is just a few minutes from Richard’s home.
Chelsea Teddy Bear Co. owners Bob and Kara Turner make and sell teddy bears around the world. Last year, after returning home from a trip to Germany where they visited many toy museums, they decided they would love to have a museum located in their factory and retail store.
Bob contacted me in spring 2008 and said he would like to have the toy museum up and running by the end of July. That allowed only a couple months to create the museum, which included ordering display cases as well as selecting museum pieces. “Do you have enough items to fill a museum?” Bob asked.
Married 43 years now, my wife Brenda and I have been advanced collectors of toys and teddy bears for decades, concentrating on the Victorian era (1870s) all the way up to 1950 (post-World War II). In recent years, our greatest joy has come from helping others find what they wish to collect and learn about the importance of provenance.
Sharing your knowledge and collection is one of the ultimate goals for advanced collectors. In writing for Teddy Bear Review, attending bear shows and delivering weekly show-and-tell lectures on antiques, we have been able to display different rare items that educate new audiences every week. And, since 1992, American Greetings has featured teddy bears and toys from our collection in its annual calendars and greeting cards.
Brenda has received accolades over the years for her prowess in creating wonderful displays of antiques and teddy bears. She is in charge of the displays at the Chelsea Toy Museum and will continually offer new seasonal areas as well as sustain the basic desire: to have every visitor see one of the finest museum displays.
A Story of Its Own
As curator, my first goal was to define what would be displayed. I have always been an advocate of quality over quantity, so Brenda assisted me in selecting some of the finest examples of toys, dolls, games and, most importantly, teddy bears from our collection. The amazing staff at Chelsea Teddy Bear Co. helped us overcome any hesitation we had about taking these treasures from our home and displaying them in Chelsea. Bob’s handling of the cases and logistics also made the transition an easy one.
A museum can be a collection of anything, but the Chelsea Toy Museum is very specific: toys, dolls, games and teddy bear-related items dating from the late 1880s up to the 1950s. It was during this period that the Industrial Revolution occurred, the “Century of the Child” began, and the Roaring Twenties created memories that would be revisited with the post-World War II era. All this and much more is touched upon throughout the museum.
Each of the hundreds of items on display has a story of its own. Teddies featured in the museum include a 1905 Steiff with original photo, given by John Everett Byrd, former Michigan Attorney General and Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, to his daughter; the Steiff teddy is possibly one of the first bears brought into Michigan.
Also on display are an original American Ives mechanical bear, with the original wooden box, from 1873; the original Schuco brushed flannel teddy bear from around 1912; and two original “Teddy’s Bear” campaign pins from the 1904 campaign that elected Teddy Roosevelt. These rare bear pins—there are less than two dozen known in collections—were sold for 5 cents each in 1904 and today sell for thousands.
The museum is an ongoing opportunity for people from around the country—and the world—to experience the magnificent history housed within. And admission is free, as Bob wants to encourage everyone who visits Chelsea to see all the museum has to offer. The museum, factory and retail store are open seven days a week. For more information, visit www.chelseateddybear.com or contact Chelsea Teddy Bear Co. at 400 N. Main St., Chelsea, MI 48118, or (734) 433-5499.