If your Walgreens is anything like mine, it is pinker than usual. For the past few weeks, the franchise near my apartment has announced the approach of Valentine’s Day in several festive forms — sparse ceiling streamers, trampled Hallmark envelopes, and a full two aisles dedicated to heart-shaped boxes of Ferrero-Rochers. After the long, post-New Years drought of seasonal decorations, this strikes me as quite nice. But there’s an element to the annual display that I’ve always found somewhat mystifying: the teddy bears.
One could reasonably assume that teddy bears belong to the same genus as dolls, action figures, and little baggies of goldfish scored at state fairs — which is to say, items generally beloved by children and their caretakers. If the occasional childless adult enjoys them, I’d imagine it involves a nostalgic distance, a collector’s intensity, or something that prevents said adult from living within 500 feet of a school. There’s plenty of evidence for the latter; old Gawker covered those pioneers pretty regularly. But the bears’ seasonal popularity suggests an adult interest in them on a mass scale. The drug stores aren’t alone in that assumption. Earlier this week, Activision announced a “Valentine’s Day-themed experience” for Call of Duty Vanguard players: an operator skin of a “pink teddy bear dress for war.” Just before that, Build-A-Bear debuted an “After Dark'' collection of teddies, which includes, as CNET put it, “a chad teddy bear with a lion's mane and a silk robe, lying on a shag carpet with a single rose and two glasses of wine.” Bring that to a kid’s birthday, and you’ll probably get asked to leave.
Somewhere down the line, a toy seemingly aimed at kids became not only an acceptable gift for adults, but a legible symbol of romantic love. This has been the case for as long as I’ve been sentient, but where it all started is somewhat unclear. Attorney Paula Paster-Michtom, the granddaughter-in-law of the couple who claimed to have invented the toy (more on that later), found its modern-day synonymy with Valentine’s Day surprising: “I have never been contacted about [teddy bears and] Valentine’s Day,” she said. “It used to be about Christmas, so I would guess this started sometime in the 1990s.” The toy itself goes back well before that to a national fad with distinctly unsexy, by which I mean political and propagandistic, roots.
The conventional story concerns a hunting trip in 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt visited the Mississippi lowlands with the state’s governor, a formerly enslaved bear trapper named Holt Collier, several journalists, and an inordinately large squad of dogs. The president had been keen on catching a bear early in the trip, so Collier tracked an “old, fat, 235-pound black bear,” smashed its skull and tied it to a tree for Roosevelt to finish. He reportedly refused on the grounds that it was “unsportsmanlike” to kill a subdued opponent. This made it into the papers, or at least into a Washington Post cartoon from illustrator Clifford Berryman, who sketched Roosevelt standing before a diminutive bear tied to a tree.
The “Teddy’s bear incident” made Berryman famous; he’d go on to sneak increasingly cute versions throughout the paper like a Pixar version of Al Hirschfeld’s “Nina.” What happened next is disputed to a degree slightly more bitter than one would expect of toy history. A Brooklyn couple, Rose and Morris Michtom, claimed it inspired them to sew two stuffed bears, which they sold under the name “Teddy’s Bear.” But a German toy maker named Margaret Stieff also created a stuffed bear the same year, based on drawings her nephew had made at the Stuttgart Zoo and sold with the notably less catchy name, “Bär 55PB.” (Per the BBC: “The 55 stood for its height, P stood for plush and B for ‘beweglich,’ German for moveable”). By all accounts though, the teddy had been sewn into existence by early 1903 and was on its way to Tulip-level craze by the following year.
Americans went nuts for these bears: Manufacturers popped up in the U.S. and Germany; Stieff alone sold a reported 974,000 of them that first year. Childrens’ books like Seymour Eaton’s series on the “The Roosevelt Bears” became bestsellers; songs like “Teddy Bear Two-step,” and “Teddy Bear’s Lullaby” became actual chart-toppers. By 1907, companies were selling custom bear clothing, Ladies Home Journal was publishing patterns to make knockoffs from home, and it was common for parents to trot kids out for professional bear photoshoots. The trend went far enough to trigger a backlash: a Michigan priest denounced the “toy beast” for “destroying all instincts of motherhood” and increasing the risk of “race suicide.”
There was an adult element (per one history: “Society ladies carried their teddies everywhere;” from another: “Teddy bears were all the ‘rage in the cities’... They had become a fashion accessory”), but it was inextricably tied to Roosevelt. They became a political mascot for his reelection campaign. The president’s influence proved obvious in 1908, when the trend waned with his decision not to seek reelection. (His successor, William Taft, tried to reproduce the phenomenon, making merchandise with a new mascot named “Billy Possum.” He did win, but not because of Billy: “Taft’s marsupial never caught on as a stuffed animal,” one historian wrote, “perhaps because Taft’s relationship to the furry fellas consisted of his desire to ingest them.”)
So: how did a plush bear transition from political prop to drug-store shorthand for basic sexual interest? It’s not a “teddy” lingerie thing, which — swear to god — was named after its inventor, Theodore Baer. There are a few working theories. Some claim that the first teddy bear was “born” on Feb. 15, 1903, a date either as close to Valentine’s as a day can be, or about as far. That’s plausible — the Berryman cartoon first ran on Nov. 16, 1902 — but appears mostly in dubious sources like “Bears4u.co.uk.” The more in-depth histories don’t mention it, and neither the Michtoms or the Strong Museum of Play, which holds their archives, had ever heard of that date. Alternatively, several books mention a woman named Helen Lovejoy who fell ill in 1907, found herself strapped for cash, and started selling teddy bear photos as Valentine’s cards. This worked well. Lovejoy later wrote: “I wonder if any other Teddy Bear can boast of having contributed so materially to the support of a family!”
It would be appropriately American that a romantic holiday would be linked to the financial desperation of a woman in medical debt, but there isn’t much evidence for this theory either (though her namesake in The Simpsons does debut her catchphrase in an episode involving bears). The best explanation for broader and more recent bear fandom concerns the mid-century British character actor, Peter Bull — whom you might remember as the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, or the ship captain in The African Queen, or not at all. Bull was a die-hard bear guy with a collection of several hundred, but kept his interest mostly private (he preferred the term “arctophilist” over “bear guy”). In the mid-1960s, he went public in a London Times personal ad. This was apparently a flash point in the teddy bear community. Bull appeared on the Today show and Johnny Carson specifically to talk about his toys. As “LetsTalkTeddyBears.com” puts it: Bull “made collecting teddy bears an acceptable adult hobby.”
Bull’s 1969 book Bear with Me about the experience is a charmingly British tour through the thousands of replies he received to his ad — one which not only illustrated the far reaches of mature bear appreciation, but mounted the most compelling defense of it I encountered in the bowels of the ursine internet. “Adult arctophilists” frequently endure looks of “terror…derision, and disbelief,” Bull wrote, from those who can’t fathom why an adult would be “so passionately attached to what is apparently only a stuffed toy.” Then again: “I feel the same sort of thing when people start going on about their cars, yachts, houses, or bank balances, all of which seem to me far more inanimate than Teddy.” Right on.
While the actor detailed several women who “married bearlike gents,” and three “gentlemen [who] admitted to having their first sexual experience with a Teddy Bear,” Bull did not neatly explain the bear’s trajectory to more mainstream emblem of courtship. That’s more or less why I wound up at a suburban CVS on the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border last Thursday night, asking several shoppers about their bear-buying habits. According to two CVS clerks, the latest bear crop — which range from 4-inch Russell Stover accessories to the more daunting kind normally seen on a carnival whack-a-mole prize board — have been sitting on shelves since late January. But they arrived in stock well before then; CVS plans in advance. Suffice to say, they have been moving product. “Yes,” one clerk said. “Not a lot, but people have been buying.”
There were only a few groups of prospective buyers in the store that night. A navy-scrubbed nurse in the COVID vaccination station was skeptical. She had never bought a bear for a boyfriend, and she “definitely [would] not” in the future. The crowd in the shampoo aisle saw things differently; a very strong man, whose profile alone could have earned him a supporting role in Braveheart, was open to the idea: “Why not? Sure it’s for kids, but it’s also a huggable, comfort thing.” Plush bears aren’t the most personal present, he explained, but on a holiday as forced as Valentine’s Day, a broad signifier of sweetness gets the job done. Pretty convincing, at least for the friend I’d arrived with. I found him standing at self-checkout, slipping a mid-size bear in his bag.