The teddy bear truth unraveled

Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 10:39 PM
President Theodore Roosevelt believed in the strenuous life. And he always wanted to be the center of attention, as seen here bursting out of a confined space. His daughter said that when TR was at a wedding he wanted to be the bride and when he was at a funeral he wanted to be the corpse.
The twin towers of the 1893-built Hotel Colorado rise above the town of Glenwood Springs. Roosevelt twice stayed at the hotel after hunting trips. Legend has it that hotel maids created the first teddy bear.
Real men love their teddy bears. San Juan Public Lands Center volunteer Dennis Pierce poses with his 1915 Steiff teddy bear bought in the Emporium in San Francisco by his great aunt. As early as 1907, the German company Steiff made 975,000 Teddy bears a year and shipped 90 percent to the U.S.
This is the cartoon that started it all. It depicts TR’s refusal to shoot a bear tied to a tree in Mississippi in 1902. This original cartoon by Clifford Berryman is from the Theodore Roosevelt Collection.
Cartoonist Clifford Berryman of TheWashington Post and later TheStar became forever linked with the teddy bear. This drawing requested by a little girl illustrates teddy bears taking over the nation’s Capitol.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — If President Theodore Roosevelt roped and rode and hunted in the West, what is the link between TR and the bear that bears his name? American children have a right to know. So here it is. The true story of one of the nation’s most popular presidents and a toy named Teddy.

One version of the story is that the teddy bear came from Colorado’s Western Slope.

I love the Hotel Colorado built in 1893 in Glenwood Springs. The Victorian-era Italianate hotel has spacious rooms, an interior waterfall and formal gardens. Historic photos from the Hotel Colorado’s opening are captioned, “Some of the world’s most wealthy & famous people were known to have checked in here,” because it was one of the first hotels with electricity. Another caption reads, “What stories these walls were destined to hear, what journeys they would host, what explorers they would welcome.”

My hero President Theodore Roosevelt stayed there twice. In January 1901, three months before being inaugurated vice president, he took a stagecoach to Meeker to hunt mountain lions and he returned to the hotel. He also came as president in April 1906 before bear hunting south of Silt.

The hotel features photos and political cartoons of TR everywhere, but especially on the second and fifth floors. There are framed posters, magazine covers, lithographs and even a marble bust of TR. Though he sought anonymity before his bear hunt, when TR returned, the residents of Glenwood Springs insisted on a speech. He walked out on a second-floor balcony and addressed them from what now is called the Roosevelt Suite.

As for the teddy bear, it’s time to sort through fact and fiction. Coloradans must accept the bare truth.

Bear stories associated with this grand hotel abound. For decades a small stuffed, mounted bear snarled at visitors from the fireplace mantle. In a display case, the hotel claims, “The Teddy bear was born from two separate expressions occurring around President Theodore Roosevelt and his visits to the Hotel Colorado.” The placard continues, “The President had his daughter at the Hotel during one of his bear hunting trips. As he took pictures with a grizzly he had shot, his daughter pointed to the carcass and said ‘Teddy.’ This was the first association with the word ‘Teddy’ to a bear.”

Not so. TR’s daughter Alice never came west to hunt with her father.

The sign continues, “On another hunting trip, Roosevelt returned to the Hotel Colorado empty-handed. He was disappointed, and in order to raise his spirits, the hotel maids presented him with a stuffed bear patched together from scraps of cloth. President Roosevelt’s daughter Alice named the bear ‘Teddy’ after her father. The Teddy Bear was born at the Hotel Colorado.”

Alas, that’s another shaggy dog story without a teensy weensy bit of truth. The sign is wrong and so is the Hotel Colorado’s website. The dozen stuffed bears having a tea party in the 12-foot-long, 8-foot-high mahogany case on the ground floor should know better. The interpretive sign placed among them fibs. Down the hall, another photo caption reads, “Teddy bear legends have long been associated with the Hotel Colorado,” and that’s true. The part about legends, I mean.

Is this a teddy bear conspiracy? Are all the stuffed bears in our state pretending to have a great-great-ancestor who never existed? Yes. The children of America, and their grandparents, deserve to know the facts. So for all of us who love the West as Teddy did, who love the mountains, the canyons, the wide-open spaces where TR could ride to his heart’s delight, shoot buffalo and bears, and yell “BULLY!” at the top of his lungs, it’s time to throw a leg off the saddle, straddle the corral fence and hear the honest story.

In the West, fact and fiction often blur, and TR generated plenty of legends. Author Bryce Courtenay writes, “As is so often the case with a legend, every incident has two possible interpretations, the plausible and the one that is molded to suit the making of the myth.”

The Hotel Colorado’s history fact sheet has a slightly different version of the story, which reads, “In order to lift the President’s spirits, the maids stitched together a small bear out of scraps of cloth. A reporter of the day found this an amusing story and coined the phrase ‘Teddy Bear.’ A toy maker nabbed onto the caption and began making teddy bears.”

Now we’re getting closer to the truth, but the hunting story is misplaced. For all his love of the West, and for all the bears he chased and shot in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Colorado, the teddy bear story begins in the South, in the swamps of Mississippi, in 1902.

The hunt had been unsuccessful, and for three days TR never got a shot. To help the unhappy Roosevelt, who had become president after William McKinley’s assassination, one of TR’s guides found an exhausted, muddy bear, lassoed it, and tied it to a tree. When the President rode up on horseback following his guide’s advice, he was mortified to see a weary bear at the end of a rope.

Shooting an old, infirm black bear tied to a tree was hardly sportsmanlike. A newspaper cartoonist drew an image of the president turning away from the roped bear, and the public loved it. They admired their honorable president. Americans clamored for bear cartoons with TR, and the bear got smaller and more cuddly. Those interested can check out many of these cartoons in a recently released book by Rick Marschall, “BULLY! The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt” (Regenery Publishing, 2011).

Seeing the cartoons, a Brooklyn, N.Y., candy store owner, Morris Michtom, a Russian immigrant, placed two stuffed bears his wife had made in their shop window. Patrons wanted more, but first, Michtom wrote the president and asked if he could produce a “Teddy bear.”

TR wrote back and said, “I don’t think my name will mean much to the bear business, but you are welcome to use it.” From that humble beginning, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co. evolved, and Steiff, a German company, also produced bears with arms that moved and buttons for eyes. Thus, the Teddy bear was born, not at the Hotel Colorado but in Mississippi and Brooklyn.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, “Inspired by a political cartoon in The Washington Post depicting Roosevelt with the cub, the Ideal Toy Co. created the ‘Teddy bear,’” which became “a cuddly alter ego for the macho Roosevelt.” TR’s son Kermit eventually gave one of the original bears to the National Museum of American History.

I’ll keep returning to the Hotel Colorado. I’d love to stay in the Roosevelt Suite and stand on the balcony on a summer evening, but it’s time the Hotel told the teddy bear truth. America’s children want to know.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at