During the July 4 holiday week—some companies are closed for extended weekends; others just for the formal one-day holiday; others seem to have shuttered their doors for six whole days in a row—it’s nice to contemplate what does the Declaration of Independence mean, and what does it have to do with teddy bears and other ursine affairs. In actuality, America has much to do with the beloved teddy bear, and even though Germany seems to be lauded as the birthplace of the cuddly bear toy (Steiff quickly springs to mind as Number One), the teddy bear concept originated in America.
The notion for a cuddly cub to hug and to hold (sounds like a marriage vow, doesn’t it?) came courtesy of President Theodore Roosevelt and his “altruistic” hunting trip. (In today’s modern world with our more enlightened sensibilities, PETA would not be honoring Roosevelt. Most likely, they’d be picketing him and his fellow sports enthusiasts. His sparing of the lassoed, captured bear, which his fellow hunters had tied up for him to blast away, still meant that the terrified, caught beast was killed and put out of its misery. Rather than being “hunted” and shot by him, Roosevelt felt that it was unsportsmanlike to shoot a bear that was lashed by ropes, he ordered for the bear to be “put down” mercifully.)
So, from the folklore of this ill-fated hunting trip, a story of clemency arose, and cartoonist Clifford Berryman translated it into an illustration that triggered positive emotions among the American public. (The bear was drawn to be much smaller and cuter, and its ultimate execution was not referenced.) In late November 1902, on the heels of these events, Brooklyn businessman Morris Michtom, an immigrant from Russia, invented the teddy bear (a nod to Roosevelt’s nickname of Teddy) and then went on to found the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company with his wife, Rose. (Simultaneous to all of these American activities involving a president, a cartoonist, a Jewish immigrant, and a talented housewife who could sew and stuff, Richard Steiff in Germany was dreaming up and designing his own bear. But that’s the stuff of another blog and legend!)
The teddy bear has a huge connection to American politics, presidential foibles and heroism (sometimes exhibited by the same man, at the same time), and the desire for most folks to think the best in even the most dire of circumstances. The teddy bear is, therefore, an excellent stand-in for the character of the American people. (Better than the turkey that Benjamin Franklin had advocated!) And even though the Roosevelt hunting trip happened in November 1902, July 4 is a star-spangled time to rally around the notions of charity and compassion, concern and consideration, that birthed the collectible bears.
As we get older as people and as a nation, we have come to realize that there is the story we’ve been taught, the events that might have occurred, the facts of what really did go on, and the incidents that aren’t reported, mentioned, referenced, or remembered. We’re living through it right now; turn on any news station, any hour of the day, and listen to any anchor or talking-head pundit. Truly, put any partisanship aside, how much of anything do you believe? The news is agenda-based, and we all find the agenda-driven network that best echoes our own mind-sets. We’re watching history unfold each and every day, and the emphasis is certainly on the “story” part of history. Will there be a Roosevelt–Teddy Bear turning point where a kind gesture rises above the reality of what really is going on?
July 4, 2018, is the 242nd anniversary of the great political experiment that is known as the United States of America. During these past centuries, we’ve had run-ins with potential national dissolution, moments where the union’s fabric was nearly torn apart. We’ve luckily had passionate citizens and committed leaders who have kept the experiment together, and boldly going forward. Unabashed optimism and “the pursuit of happiness,” as Founding Father Thomas Jefferson penned in the Declaration of Independence, are hallmarks of our nation. In this country, our visions of a better tomorrow are labeled “the American Dream,” and we are urged to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness,” described as “unalienable rights” by Jefferson. Our founding document recognizes that these rights are found in all people, and governments are created to protect those rights. In other words—and this is a mind-blower in today’s world—we the people have rights that are separate from and precede the government, and our rights are not given to us by the government. We attain these unalienable rights from our Creator. This is radical talk for 1776, and it is still radical for 2018!
Listen to these words that Jefferson crafted: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. These are the bedrocks of the teddy bear collecting and artistic community. Every artist and collector that I have interviewed and chatted with over the decades have all accentuated how much those three principles mean to them. Ursine artists and their collectors are delighted to be leading lives that are defined by them, shaped by them, decided by them. It is a brave decision to turn one’s back on a more sensible and predictable career, and follow one’s dream (American, European, or otherwise) to become an artist. Yet, all of our teddy bear designers and artisans decide to do that. They declare their own independence from a more conservative and more reliable lifestyle, and follow their own LIFE path.
LIBERTY is what allows the artists, like the remarkable Bev White, to follow their passions and to carve out niches for themselves. Rather than worrying about fitting in and conforming, our teddy bear artists are fierce and forge their own paths. They are free to express their hearts, their souls, and their dreams. No matter where they began, or where they foresee themselves ending up, creating bears and their plush pals is their chosen career path. They are driven to PURSUE HAPPINESS. The plush life is the right life for them.
On this July 4, 2018, week of parading and protesting, celebrating and rallying, literal and figurative fireworks—some shot off in the sky, while others are emotionally launched around heated national issues—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are pieces of American history that still have validity and a purpose in our society.
Teddy bear artists and companies, such as Vermont Teddy Bear, create freely, take chances, assume risks, and reap rewards. You can’t get more American than that.