The teddy bear: Is it cute and cuddly, or a “horrible monstrosity” that’ll destroy humanity? In 1907, many people feared the worst — that this new toy would ruin young girls’ developing maternal instincts, and lead us to a terrible fate. This is the story of how the teddy bear changed us all… and how we then changed the bear.
Jason Feifer: This is Build For Tomorrow. I'm Jason Feifer.
We don't know a ton about Reverend Michael G. Esper, but we know that he was loved. He was a Michigan man born in a town called Springwell that no longer exists. And Father Esper built a local life for himself. In the year 1902, he was hired as the fourth ever pastor of a little church across the state called St. Joseph Parish, and the place was a bit of a fixer upper. He oversaw improvements on the edifice and rectory, he put up a school building and cleaned up the cemetery, he took out a $20,000 life insurance policy for himself so that if he died, the money would pay off the church's debts. Local news stories from the time talk about how beloved he was.
Once, after taking a trip to Milwaukee, Father Esper came back and got to work as usual, but at around 8:30 that evening, he was asked to join a little gathering the church ladies were having. So, he walked into the room, and surprise, it was really a party for him, and the place was packed. People applauded, they sang songs, and ate cake and ice cream. And here's from the St. Joseph Daily Press.
Voice Clip (St....: The real surprise of the evening came when John [Efwarts] called Father Esper to the stage and, with a few words of appreciation for what he had done for the parish, and telling of the love his people had for him, on behalf of the parishioners, presented him with a purse containing $150 in gold.
Jason Feifer: Heavenly Father! Anyway, I share this with you so you see how trusted and beloved this man was. He was a voice for the community, and people took him seriously. So, they surely listened closely and with great interest when he stood in front of his congregation one day in July of 1907 and told his flock that one of the greatest evils in the world was-
Voice Clip (Ted...: Hi, my name is Teddy Ruxpin. Can you and I be friends?
Jason Feifer: I mean, it would be a long time before Teddy Ruxpin was invented, but Teddy bears, Teddy bears were the enemy. We unfortunately don't have the full transcript of his sermon that day, but pieces of it were quoted in various newspapers so we can get a nice sense of it. And here is at least part of what Father Esper said.
Voice Clip (Fat...: What more concerns the community is the Teddy bear craze in relation to the children, the children who wouldn't have turned that way if they hadn't been encouraged. When your little girl asked for a dolly and you gave her a Teddy bear, your action was fraught with a consequence that is only excusable on the ground of your ignorance. Bring your babies back to dollies or you will have weened the grownups of the future from the babies that will never be.
Jason Feifer: Nice little wordplay at the end there, though let me just be clear about what he means. Father Esper is saying that if little girls don't play with dolls now, then they won't grow up to have babies later, and that has far reaching consequences.
Voice Clip (Fat...: Race suicide, the greatest danger which confronts our nation today, is being fostered and encouraged by the fad for supplanting the good old dolls of our childhood with the horrible monstrosity known as the Teddy bear. The very instincts of motherhood in a growing girl are blunted and oftentimes destroyed if the child is allowed to lavish upon an unnatural toy of this character, the loving care, which is so beautiful when bestowed upon a doll representing a helpless infant. No more disgusting sight has ever come to my eyes than is presented by the spectacle of a girl fondling, caressing, and even kissing these pseudo animals.
Jason Feifer: I mean, when you put it like that, it does sound a little weird. And here's one more bit from Father Esper.
Voice Clip (Fat...: It is a shame upon the American people that it will suffer the development of the instinct of motherhood and its future women to be arrested for a fad for these bundles of horribleness, the most harmful and repulsive nature fakes ever perpetrated.
Jason Feifer: Could you imagine if a public figure said something like this today? It would go viral, which is exactly what it did back in 1907, when going viral meant showing up in newspapers across the country. One day after Esper gave his sermon, news of it was everywhere. Here, for example, was the headline in the Journal Gazette of Mattoon, Illinois.
Voice Clip (Jou...: Teddy bear is a menace.
Jason Feifer: And in the Detroit Free Press.
Voice Clip (Det...: Teddy bear dooms race.
Jason Feifer: We found versions of this story appearing in Iowa, Indiana, Massachusetts, California, Ohio, Utah, on and on. In the Washington Post, there was actually some nice news about Teddy bears. A four-year-old boy named Edward N. Hackett had fallen out of his third story window while holding his Teddy bear, then landed on an awning, rolled off, and the Teddy bear broke his fall. He was totally fine. But news of this was published on page six of the paper. You know what was on page one of the paper that very same day?
Voice Clip (Was...: Teddy bear fad destroys motherly instinct and trends to race suicide, says priest.
Jason Feifer: Soon, the entire nation was debating the issue, and many people were on Father Esper's side. Teddy bears were banned in certain places, and parents and educators bemoaned their bad influence, which sounds absolutely nuts today, of course. Teddy bears seemed like the most innocent, cute, harmless thing anyone's ever invented. I mean, except for Lotso from Toy Story 3.
Woody: She loved you, Lotso.
Lotso: She never loved me.
Jason Feifer: So, were Teddy bears once seen as so threatening that they could destroy an entire civilization? That's what we're going to explore on this episode of Build For Tomorrow, because the answer is pretty fascinating and occasionally very ugly and, ultimately, quite revealing. The Teddy bear was meant to be nothing more than a cuddly toy, but it unexpectedly became something far more. It became subversive, or at least it became seen that way. For many young girls, it became a gateway into a bigger world. It changed us. Here's the thing. We, in turn, changed the Teddy bear, too. There is a lot to snuggle up to here, but first, let's take a quick break.
Jason Feifer: All right. We're back. So, the thing I love about this national Teddy bear scandal is how much it challenges the very fundamentals of how our lives. I mean, think about your most basic childhood experiences. Did you have a Teddy bear? I did. His name was Blue Bear, and he was bright orange. Okay, kidding. He was a blue bear named Blue Bear. But to really understand the fear of the Teddy bear, we have to start by reconsidering things that are as fundamental to us as childhood, so let's start with that: childhood.
Karen Sanchez-E...: For most of world history and, indeed, most of American history, of course children worked. Everybody worked.
Jason Feifer: That's Karen Sanchez-Eppler, who teaches American studies and English at Amherst College. And now, there is a debate among historians about exactly how children were treated throughout most of history. A French historian has very famously argued a few decades ago that childhood was a modern construct, made up in the 18th century, and that before then, children were basically treated as miniature adults. But Karen and many childhood historians today say that isn't quite right, and there is plenty of evidence that children across time were playing games and being treated as special and so on. But either way, it is well agreed upon that before the 18th century, people weren't catering to children the way that we do now. If kids had toys, they were homemade. If they had books, they were instructional. And then something new came along.
Karen Sanchez-E...: So, the earliest book that wasn't trying to teach you how to read or moral didactic book, but a book that's core was to support play was published in 1744.
Jason Feifer: It was by a British publisher named John Newberry, and it's known by the title A Little Pretty Pocket Book. Though, that's actually just the very first part of its title. The full title of the book went like this.
Voice Clip (A L...: A Little Pretty Pocket Book Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly, Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer, as also a Ball and a Pin Cushion, the Use of Which Will Infallibly Make Tommy a Good Boy and Polly a Good Girl.
Jason Feifer: And that's not all. The title, I swear to you, is actually only halfway over. There is a whole other part about a song book, but whatever. We really need to dig into what you just heard. So, remember, as the title says, you've got your book and it comes with a bunch of stuff. Two letters from Jack the Giant Killer and a ball or a pin cushion. So, what are the letters? The letters explain that the little boy or girl that got this book would be constantly judged by their nurse or whoever was taking care of them. When the child did something good, a pin would be put into the red side of the ball or pin cushion, and when the child did something bad, a pin would be put into the black side. That way, there could be constant accounting of the child's deeds. Silicon Valley CEOs today would call that gamification. And also, let's talk about that ball or pin cushion. The book didn't come with two objects, and there weren't two versions of this thing that you could buy at a store. The ball or the pin cushion, well, they were-
Karen Sanchez-E...: It's the same object. It's a cloth ball, it's just you call it a ball or you call it a pin cushion, depending on which gender you're talking to. Even at that moment when the idea of we're going to make entertaining things for children, they're still going to have this disciplinary edge to them, and they're going to be gendered.
Jason Feifer: And this really sets the tone for the future of play. As publishers create more books for kids, and eventually manufacturers start to create toys, they are always thought of as part of the grooming process. Boys got balls and toys and things that prepared them for a life of labor and adventure. And girls, they got home goods.
Karen Sanchez-E...: Little irons, little washing boards, and so play for girls always represented as just another site for learning domestic skills.
Jason Feifer: And then along came the Teddy bear to shatter that domestic bubble, though it's not actually that simple. So, let's pause for a minute on the history of childhood in America and rewind a few years to November of 1902. The American president Teddy Roosevelt is on a bear hunting trip in Mississippi, but despite being an avid hunter, Roosevelt never gets a bear. So, by the end of the trip, Roosevelt's assistant finds a black bear and ties it to a tree so that Roosevelt could just shoot it point blank, which is kind of like when they put a human being in front of Dick Cheney so he could shoot the guy in the face. That's how that went. Right? Anyway, Roosevelt refused to shoot the captive bear because, come on, that is just pathetic.
Soon, news of this gets out, and a Washington Post cartoonist draws Roosevelt waving off this adorable little bear, and then the whole situation becomes a national sensation. It's the hunter president who wouldn't shoot the bear. From here, two popular origin stories about the Teddy bear emerge. One is from a guy named Morris Michtom, who ran the Ideal Toy Company in New York. The company would go on to become famous for the Rubik's Cube and, very appropriately for our conversation about gender dolls, they also invented Betsy Wetsy.
Voice Clip (Bet...: Ask your mommy to get you Betsy Wetsy, and then you can be a mommy, too.
Jason Feifer: But back in 1902, Morris supposedly saw this news about Teddy and the bear, and he thought to create a plush bear and call it a Teddy bear. He's often credited as the inventor of the Teddy bear, though some historians suspect that this was really just a made up story to promote his company. The second more widely accepted story comes from Germany. It starts with a woman named Margaretta Steiff who owned a local clothing company and was confined to a wheelchair because of polio. One day in 1879, she made an elephant pin cushion based on a little guide she found in a magazine.
Rick Emerson: And the children in the family adopted this, instead of being a pin cushion, as a toy. And soon, there was so much demand for the pin cushions that her clothing business turned into a toy business.
Jason Feifer: The business was called Steiff, and it's around to this day. That voice you just heard was Rick Emerson, who's been a product development and marketing consultant for Steiff for 15 years. So, as the story goes, Margaretta created all sorts of other animal toys and had some members of her family join the company. And one of those people, a nephew named Richard Steiff, was visiting the zoo one day in 1902 when he started sketching out a toy based on a bear he saw. He called it PB55. That's actually the very first name of the Teddy bear, PB55. And in 1903, the company decided to take PB55 to market.
Rick Emerson: Steiff presented the bear at a toy fair in Germany, and there wasn't much interest at first. However, at the end of this show, which I believe was in Leipzig, a buyer from the US placed an order for 3,000 pieces. I'm assuming that's because of his association with the popularity of Teddy Roosevelt in the US.
Jason Feifer: The original order of 3,000 went missing. Nobody knows what happened to them, and finding them is basically the greatest dream of every Teddy bear collector today. But whatever happened, that was just the beginning. More orders came, and then more and more.
Rick Emerson: By the year 1907, the company made over 1 million Teddy bears, mostly for the export market.
Jason Feifer: That year, newspapers were alight with stories about the booming popularity of Teddy bears. Here's the Lancaster New Era of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Voice Clip (Lan...: College girls and society women have taken up the fad, says the Boston Herald, and there is no telling where the craze will stop. The bearish tone of State Street or Wall Street is nothing to the bearish domination of the toy market.
Jason Feifer: Oh, Lancaster New Era, your wordplay is so good I can hardly bear it. Anyway, there are stories of people lining up for these bears and drawings of girls playing with these bears and just general bear loving mania. Though, there's also at least a small bit of grumbling about the Teddy bear. One of the earliest came from child-rearing experts, because this was a time of great change in the way that kids were being raised at home.
Peter Stearns: More and more parents were having their little children sleep in a separate room rather than keeping them with them.
Jason Feifer: That's Peter Stearns, a university professor of history at George Mason University who studies the history of the family. And Peter says that as parents moved their children into their own rooms for the first time, they started giving Teddy bears to the kids to comfort them. Though, some people said that was sending the wrong message.
Peter Stearns: It gives a wrong signal that the first thing you should develop an attachment to is a thing rather than a person.
Jason Feifer: Which sounds not unlike things we still debate today, like nipple confusion, but then things started to get a little more hysterical. For example, in the Scranton Tribune on June 16th, 1907, a columnist reports that Teddy bears are having, "as permanent and effect upon the manners and morals of our age as pretty nearly any other factor you can mention." For example, the columnist writes-
Voice Clip (Scr...: Father and mother and brother and sister and nurse and governess bow in subjection to the horrid little beast. Children carry them in cars. Grown-up people don't seem to think it demeans their dignity be in snuggling them under their arms. And I even saw a devoted lover once come into a hall full of people who were brilliantly gowned in evening dress clasping a big Teddy bear to his immaculate shirt front.
Jason Feifer: And one month after that column was written, the mother lode arrives. Father Michael G. Esper goes on a tirade against Teddy bears at St. Joseph's Parish, and the news rockets around the country. And just to refresh your memory, here is a bit of what he had to say.
Voice Clip (Fat...: No more disgusting sight has ever come to my eyes than is presented by the spectacle of a girl fondling, caressing, and even kissing these pseudo animals.
Jason Feifer: Soon, a national debate is fueled. Newspapers are running around town, surveying the locals. Most people, to be fair, think that Teddy bears are perfectly fine, but there are also plenty of people going anti-bear. For example, here's a guy named W.A. Ramsey who was quoted in the Nevada State Journal.
Voice Clip (W. ...: I agree with the priest. I never liked the Teddy bear. The old fashioned doll is the thing to play with. There was something human about a doll. At least it has the human image, but these toy beasts have nothing to recommend them.
Jason Feifer: By the way, the Nevada State Journal describes that guy as, "childless and unmarried, yet to an observer." So, sure, sounds like he's qualified to comment on what children should play with. But soon enough, more consequential people also start to take Father Esper's side. For example, Teddy bears begin being banned at schools. Here's a piece from the Idaho Record.
Voice Clip (Ida...: Now the teachers have joined the fight. Little girls, they point out, formerly got their first lessons in sowing through the natural desire to provide their dolls with pretty clothes. The Teddy bear, however, does not wear clothes, save possibly a ribbon or a sweater or cap. And so, the up-to-date child was discarded her dollies for the intrusive bruin has no incentive to learn to stitch and make buttonholes.
Jason Feifer: And in New York, where teachers were also banning Teddy bears, a woman named Mrs. Jessup had been running the sewing department at NYU, and she told a local paper this.
Voice Clip (Mrs...: Formerly, as I went about the city visit in the schools, it was a delight to me to see the little girls sitting in groups, making dolls clothes or engaged in sowing that I knew they had learned in school. Now, instead of these domestic scenes, it is invariably a Teddy bear that is the center of attention, and the little hands are idle.
Jason Feifer: And you might be wondering, how could people possibly be this worked up over a cute little Teddy bear? So, it is now time to pick back up on our history of childhood, because all is not well in 1907.
Jennifer Helgre...: This definitely was a time of anxiety, possibly crisis. I don't know if I'd go that far. But there's a sense, of course, because women's roles are changing so rapidly at the turn of the 20th century, that there's a great deal of concern that girls aren't going to turn out right.
Jason Feifer: This is Jennifer.
Jennifer Helgre...: I'm Jennifer Helgren. I'm associate professor of history at the University of Pacific.
Jason Feifer: And Jennifer says a lot is happening just as these Teddy bears are entering the picture. So, first of all, women are increasingly leaving their traditional gender roles. They're becoming more athletic and more independent. By 1900 women make up 37% of college students, and they were increasingly entering the workforce. And this alarmed many scientists because they saw a pattern. Women who were educated were having fewer children.
Jennifer Helgre...: And so, the scientists of the day determined that, "Oh my goodness, education's bad for women's fertility."
Jason Feifer: That honestly took me a second to even understand, so just to be clear, the scientists didn't think that women were simply making a choice to delay child rearing, they thought that education literally harmed a woman's physical ability to give birth. So, that's what we're dealing with here. And as American culture worried about these lost women, it started to focus a lot on how to preserve the girls.
Jennifer Helgre...: There's a psychologist by the name of G. Stanley Hall, and he's generally regarded as the father of adolescent psychology. And he writes this huge book in 1904 called Adolescence. The overwhelming majority of it is focused on boys, but he's got this chapter on girls, and one of the things that he argues in there is that girls, during their sensitive adolescent years, especially when they're menstruating, need to take it easy.
Jason Feifer: Relax, be quiet, focus on nature. And this is actually pretty liberal compared to some of G. Stanley Hall's contemporaries who made arguments that girls need to lay down in the recumbent position for the entirety of their periods. Either way, the message was clear. For girls in particular, childhood was not a time of exploration and experimentation. It was a careful and fragile path, and any false step could lead away from motherhood. So, that may explain all the motherly instinct stuff that Father Esper was talking about in his sermon, but he also said something else in there, something that I hadn't drawn attention to until now, but that we really do need to pause and look at, despite how ugly it is. He used the phrase race suicide. Here it is again.
Voice Clip (Fat...: Race suicide, the gravest danger which confronts our nation today, is being fostered and encouraged by the fad for supplanting the good old dolls of our childhood with the horrible monstrosity known as the Teddy bear.
Jason Feifer: So, what's he talking about here?
Jennifer Helgre...: Well, it's eugenics. Right? If the right people don't meet, marry, and have kids, then the quality of the human race will degenerate.
Jason Feifer: But of course, people who used the phrase race suicide back then weren't just talking about the human race, they were talking about the White race. There was a belief that immigrants and African-Americans were having more and more babies, and yet White people were killing themselves off with things like education for women and birth control, which was just becoming a thing. And this wasn't some crackpot theory spoken in hushed tones. I mean, the president of the United States of America at the time had endorsed it. This is Teddy Roosevelt's second and considerably less flattering intersection with Teddy bear history. For example, here is a letter from 1902 that he wrote in which he talked about the dangers of race suicide.
Voice Clip (Ted...: The man or woman who deliberately avoids marriage and has a heart so cold as to know no passion and a brain so shallow and selfish as to dislike having children is, in effect, a criminal against the race and should be an object of contemptuous abhorrence by all healthy people.
Jason Feifer: And in fact, after Father Esper's theory of a Teddy bear-fueled race suicide went viral, a reporter managed to ask Roosevelt specifically about what he thought of it all. And according to the News-Palladium of Benton Harbor, Michigan-
Voice Clip (New...: He only laughed when he was asked to comment on the priest's remarks. He said he had read the remarks of Father Esper with interest, but he had nothing to say for or against his namesake pet.
Jason Feifer: So, now let's look at the whole picture. The role of women was changing. Girls were becoming more active just as the most respected thinkers of the day were urging girls to become less active. There was a big, broad, racist fear that White people were going extinct, which was endorsed by the man sitting in the White House. And now here comes the Teddy bear replacing dolls, those wholesome dolls, those toys that do with toys for girls have been meant to do for centuries, which is to teach them how to become mothers and homemakers. You could imagine it being seen as the lowest of all blows. It's as if the moralists of the nation we're saying, "Everything in our world is already changing, and now this? Of all basic things, you're going to take away the dolls?"
Jennifer Helgre...: If the girls are doing anything other than developing those maternal instinct, then it's signaling danger to people in this era, or at least some of the people in this era.
Jason Feifer: Although, by the way, motherhood was not the only thing to alter the time we're teaching. Harvard professor Robin Bernstein wrote a paper in 2011 that explored how White children in the 19th century would also be given Black dolls, and they would, "read books about slavery and then use dolls to act out scenes of racialized violence and forced labor." How much of this was in Father Esper's mind when he gave that sermon about Teddy bears? It's impossible to know. But his language was certainly clear. And now, I think, we have a far fuller understanding of just what people were concerned about when they said that the Teddy bear was harming girls. So, that is a lot of ugly stuff. Are you ready for a curve ball? Because while researching the history of the Teddy bear, something landed in my inbox that blew my mind and made me look at this history very differently, and it's coming up after the break.
All right, we're back. So, to recap, Father Esper and his sympathizers across the country were concerned about the fate of their young girls. The culture was changing, and for many traditionalist, the Teddy bear became the representation of that change. It seemed like something nefarious, a weapon aimed at the very heart of girlhood. But while researching this episode, I received an email from Miranda Sacks, a visiting history professor at Denison University. She'd done a research paper on the 1907 Teddy bear scare and unfortunately didn't have time to hop on the phone with me to discuss it, but she did send me a couple of notes on her findings. And one of them said this.
Voice Actress: Reading over the picture books where Teddy bears are anthropomorphized, they are badly behaved. They're not really models of behavior. They act kind of like bad boys, which is why a lot of the early marketing was for boys, but they ultimately fit more in the dolls world, which is why they were for girls.
Jason Feifer: To put it more simply, Teddy bears were originally thought of as a toy for boys. After I read this, I started scouring the archives to see what she had found, and sure enough, there it is. In 1907, for example, there's a series of books called The Teddy Bears, where these rambunctious bears keep causing trouble for a little boy named John, and it can get dark. In one book, John finds the Teddy bears piled up in a heap outside the schoolhouse, and the text reads like this.
Voice Actor: Each Teddy bled about a pint. His very laugh all around was spilling, for you must know a Teddy bear can't live without his saw dust filling.
Jason Feifer: And in 1906, a newspaper called the San Francisco Call ran a full page explanation of how the Teddy bear became so popular. It started by referencing a German woman who made these things. She's never actually named in the story, but it's clearly Margaretta Steiff, and then the story describes patient zero of the Teddy bear, the first child to buy a bear in a store along either the Jersey shore or in Atlantic City. Now, is this true? Who knows? But the gendering here is worth noting because that first child to buy a bear, the first kid to supposedly spark a national interest, it was a boy. Here's from that 1906 story.
Voice Clip (San...: He marched away hugging his prize just as proudly as a grownup man or the president of the United States returning from a successful hunt. That started the bear fad. Of course, every other little boy on the boardwalk had to have a bear. It was just the thing for a boy. Girls had dolls to play with, and boys ought to have something like a bear when it was too hot for baseball or to play Indian in the park or shipwrecked sailors on the sand.
Jason Feifer: And here's where it's worth noting, that these earliest Steiff dolls were not actually cuddly. They were hard. Instead of being filled with cotton, that they were filled with a kind of wood shaving called excelsior. They also had a hump at the bottom of their neck. This was not a soft and gentle thing, so one could assume it was not meant to be handled gently. Now, I tried my absolute damnedest to find a historian who has deeply studied the Teddy bear, but I just couldn't. It's a very understudied topic. And Rick, the consultant for Steiff, knew nothing about its early gendering. To the best of his knowledge, the company in the 1900s had no position on whether Teddy bears were for boys or girls. But I have a theory, and to be clear this is only my theory, but it's one I think is well supported by the facts, and it goes like this.
Although, and perhaps because the Teddy bear was never intended to be more than an innocent toy, it just might be the most consequentially subversive toy we have ever had. Because consider it, from the moment that the first children's book was released in 1744, girls were only given toys that promoted domesticity. The pin cushion was soon joined by toy irons and cookware and baby dolls. Basically, the world would not permit the creation of a toy for girls if it didn't serve the purpose of training that girl to be a mother and housekeeper. And this was true at the turn of the century, too, when the Teddy bear was created. It's hard to imagine anyone approving the Teddy bear as a toy explicitly for girls back then because it just didn't have a domestic purpose. But boys, on the other hand, were allowed to have a wider range of things. They got toys that encourage adventure and discovery. A bear was a perfectly fine thing for them to have because, I mean, just listen to that story from 1906. Bringing home a Teddy bear was like bringing home a bear that you shot and killed yourself just like President Theodore Roosevelt might do. So, that's how bears entered the home. That's the only way they could have entered the home, through boys. And once they were there, well, here's from that 1906 San Francisco Call story again.
Voice Clip (San...: But boys are not the only lovers of Teddy bears, by no means. Their little sisters like them, too. At first, little girls looked at the new play things with some trepidation. Bears and dolls are so very different. Dolls are always ladylike in their manners, but there's no counting on the actions of bears.
Jason Feifer: But after a while, the article says, the girls started to take to the bears. They liked their little faces and how the bears moved like the dolls. Both have moveable arms and legs.
Voice Clip (San...: Instantly, the baby sister decided she liked bears, too. And Olivia Mae, with all her gorgeous silk and lace frocks and her fetching bonnets, was left lying on her face in the corner of the nursery, while the little mother transferred her affection to Teddy.
Jason Feifer: Note how the writer just referred to a little girl as little mother. Reminder of the times there.
Voice Clip (San...: However, the changeable young mother soon found that she could not count on being able to borrow Teddy from her brother, so with the wisdom of her sex, she decided that the only thing to do was to have one all for her very own.
Jason Feifer: And so, the shift was complete. The boys had brought home a non-domestic toy, and it was adopted by the girls. It was a doll dressed as a bear, or a bear in the form of a doll. Whatever it was, it changed the discussion of what a girl's toy could be. It helped us imagine a different world. Now, imagine a guy like Father Esper, who stood to protect traditional values, you can hear a kind of panic in his voice now, can't you? The firewall had been breached. Here's Jennifer Helgren again.
Jennifer Helgre...: So, one of the things I like to ask as a historian in terms of how people get through things and how social change happens, is ask the question who won? And in fact, the Teddy bears won. Right? And the Teddy bears were probably already winning by the time a lot of these editorials were written.
Jason Feifer: Father Esper was not giving a rallying cry, he was giving a concession speech. So, what does it look like for the Teddy bears to have won? Well, it's obviously too simple to say that the bears alone changed us. The bear came along at a time of great change, and although they didn't create that change, they came to symbolize that change. So, as the bear spread, they reinforced the change, and surely they helped lead to even more change. But we also changed the bears. You see what I mean? Let's take a little field trip.
Steve Ferri: Okay, so we were just in this room. So, right to my right, we have Margaretta Steiff.
Jason Feifer: This is Steve Ferri. He's the co-owner, curator, and chef at the Den of Marbletown is a museum of Steiff Teddy bears in Marbletown, New York. The place was closed on the day I happen to be in town, but Steve let me in any way, because this is a man who loves to talk about Teddy bears, and I'm not his usual kind of visitor.
Steve Ferri: This place is really all about women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s and 80s and 90s and [inaudible]. They love this place. They love every second of it. They get it completely. It's not just a fun place, it's like, "Oh my God, I see my past, I see quality, I see things built to last." I love watching them enjoy it so much, and then you just see them having the best times. And then kids right after that.
Jason Feifer: The museum's prize collection is a 1904 Teddy bear, which looks pretty good for its age, although the fur on most of its face has been rubbed away. And as you walk around, you can get a better sense for what it was like to actually play with one of these early bears. For example, this has mentioned nowhere in any of the articles we found, but some of the earliest bears made a noise. You tip them back and bring them forward and-
Steve Ferri: Now, these are called growlers, and they've been growling since about 1908. And I'm up to three wildlife experts in this room telling me they're not goats, sheeps, lambs, or anything like that, but they sound like baby bears.
Jason Feifer: As time goes on, the bears start to track with history. In 1912, Steiff released a black Teddy bear with red eyes, which was meant to comfort children who lost family on the Titanic. And in 1935, Steiff created a Panda bear just as China allowed real Panda bears to go outside the country. But something else was happening over time, as well. The bears started to look different. It's easy to notice in a place like this, a Teddy bear museum. And in 1985, two scientists named Robert Hinde and L.A. Barden were wandering around a similar museum in England when they were inspired to start measuring the Teddy bears' faces, because they sensed a pattern. Here's from a paper that they published on their findings.
Voice Clip (Rob...: The earliest Teddy bear in the collection, dated 1903, had a low forehead and a long snout and was muzzled. A survey of the other bears in the collection showed a trend over time toward a larger forehead and a shorter snout relative to the dimensions of the head as a whole.
Jason Feifer: The bears evolved. The first Teddy bears had faces that looked like bears, long snout, angular face, but over time, that softened, which the scientists point out is exactly the same thing that happened to Mickey Mouse since he debuted in 1928 with a long snout and bulging eyes. Today, his nose and eyes are small and his forehead is much bigger. So, the question is why?
Voice Clip (Rob...: Of course, Teddy bears do not reproduce, but they are made for sale. Those types more successful in leaving the shop ledges in one year are more likely to be strongly represented there in the next.
Jason Feifer: It's Darwinism by commerce. And why the larger forehead and shorter snout relative to the dimensions of the head as a whole? Well, the hypothesis is that these are the features found in things we like to nurture. It's [foreign language], a German term coined in 1950 that we've come to understand as the features that make something cute, whether it's in a human infant or a little puppy or a cartoon mouse or a stuffed bear. The scientists in 1985 left it at that, but a decade later, in 1995, a paper in the journal Animal Behavior tried to pick up where they left off. It's titled The Survival of the Cutest: Who's Responsible for the Evolution of the Teddy Bear? And it aims to find out exactly when we, as little humans, start caring about it. And here's what it reports.
Voice Clip (Ani...: The preference for baby featured bears was examined in three age groups: four, six, and eight-year-olds. The six and eight-year-old significantly preferred baby featured bears. However, the four-year-olds did not. The evolution of the Teddy bear is thus apparently not driven by the ostensible consumer, the young child, the preference for baby features may be part of a wider, relatively late development of nurturant feelings toward young.
Jason Feifer: In other words, we don't start looking at things as cute or not until we're about six to eight years old. But then, we have a strong preference for it. There's something inside of us that not just gravitates towards cuteness, but will literally alter the things around us to become more cute as a result. Our natural instinct, at least in some venues, is to soften. And so it was with the Teddy bear, an object that one struck fear into the hearts of moralists and was then transformed into the platonic ideal of cuteness.
You know what this makes me think of? This is going to sound like a total tangent, but stick with me here. Do you know the history of the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame? Today, of course, it's the main event of the seventh inning stretch, where everyone at a ballgame sings about wanting to go to a ball game, but that is not the full song. That's just the chorus of a much longer song, one that was written in 1908, only one year after Father Esper railed against the Teddy bears impact on young girls. And here is how the original version began.
So, this is a song about a woman named Katie Casey, who loves baseball. She had baseball fever and had it bad, the song says. And on Saturday, her boyfriend asked if she'd like to go to a show, but Katie says, "No, I'll tell you what you can do," and that's when we get to the chorus.
The chorus is Katie's words. It's Katie telling her boyfriend to take her out to the ballgame, at a time in which the ballgame was primarily a place for men. Later in the song, she got what she wanted. The lyrics say that Katie saw all the games, knew the players by their first names, and would yell at the umpire when he got a call wrong. The song was written by Jack Norworth who, at the time, was having an affair with an actress and famous suffragist named Trixie Friganza. And historians now believe that Katie in the song is really Trixie. It may be a stretch to say that Take Me Out to the Ballgame was a feminist Anthem because it was instantly popular at the time by men and women alike, but it was certainly a feminist tribute. It was cheering on the changes of the time, which of course we don't remember now. All modern baseball fans know now is the chorus, which is sung by whoever's in the stands.
So, anyway, here is why I'm telling you all this. What I was talking to Jennifer, and she said-
Jennifer Helgre...: Ask the question who won? And in fact, the Teddy bears won.
Jason Feifer: I started to think about the evolution of the Teddy bear and the shortening of Take Me Out to the Ballgame and what it really means to win historically speaking. The Teddy bear definitely did when, of course. In 1907, people like Father Esper saw a fork in the road. One direction was defined by the doll and represented women as traditional homemakers, the other was defined by the bear and represented a more complex society, and we got the bear. But then, we changed the bear. We got rid of its harsh edges, we replaced its tough insides with fluffy cotton, and we smushed its face down into something that, frankly, isn't very bear-like at all. I mean, look at a Teddy bear today. It is not a bear. It's a series of overlapping circles.
The bear had come to symbolize a cultural force that shaped our world, but then we shaped the bear based on something deep inside of us. Something that makes six-year-olds gravitate towards things that need nurturing, and what we ended up with is a still imperfect, but certainly more equitable world than we had in 1907 but, also, no sense at all that our Teddy bears were once much wilder animals. Just as we now go to a baseball game and sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame with no idea that we're actually singing a counter-cultural song with all the counter-cultural parts chopped off, leaving only the warm, fuzzy middle that brings us all together.
I wonder what other things around us are like this, objects that once challenged us by design or by accident and went on to shape our culture anew. So, what does it mean to win historically speaking? You could argue that winning means changing the world so thoroughly that the thing you once represented sounds archaic and confusing to modern ears, and you don't need to confront anyone anymore. You can just lay down your weapon, let it sink away, start drifting towards your one-time enemy until both are remade in some version of the other's image, and you find new purpose for each other. And then, for better or for worse, you end up in a nice, warm Teddy bear embrace.
And here is where we would bring the music back in and run the credits, but wait, before we do, there really is one last place I had to call. It's St. Joseph's Parish in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Father Esper gave his famous sermon. The place still exists, though the woman who picked up the phone had never heard of Father Esper or his legacy.
Voice Clip (St....: Okay. It's all news to me.
Jason Feifer: I asked if anyone there might know something about Father Esper, and she said it was unlikely. Almost everyone there is new, including the current pastors. So, that just left me with one question. Are they're Teddy bears and St. Joseph's Parish?
Voice Clip (St....: No, not that I know of. I've never seen any.
Jason Feifer: Okay.
Voice Clip (St....: Why? You think there would be some in the church?
Jason Feifer: I don't know. Maybe there's a children's room, there's some Teddy bears.
Voice Clip (St....: Children's room. I'm pretty sure I have never seen in our row center where we have activities that we have any Teddy bears around, but that would be interesting, huh?
Jason Feifer: Yeah. But I like it that way. The Teddy bear didn't need to have made it inside Father Esper's church, it just went everywhere else instead.
And that's our episode, but of course, it's not all I've got for you. Perhaps, as you've listened to Steve at the Teddy bear museum, you wondered how the legacy of Teddy bears gets passed on to each new generation. The answer is the unexpected, I would say, and I will share it. But first, have you subscribed to Build For Tomorrow wherever you listen to podcasts? Because you should. And please leave us a rating and review, which helps a lot. Thanks to our wonderful voice actors, as always, who read our archival material, they were Brent Rose, who you can find at brentrose.com, and Gia Maura, who you can find at giamaura.com. Our theme music is by Casper Baby pants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com.
Build For Tomorrow is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the foundation at CKF.org/tech. And because this is our last episode of 2019, I also wanted to give a big shout out to Taylor Barkley and Jesse Blumenthal over there, who's support of the show this year has been really amazing. Additional research for this episode by Louie Anslow. We were recorded by Charlie Culbert at DeGraw Sound and sound edited by Alec Bayliss. Thanks to Daniel Raydosh who first alerted us to Father Esper's sermon. And like I said earlier in the episode, no historian seems to have deeply studied this subject, so this was easily the hardest Build For Tomorrow's episode I have ever reported.
I'm grateful to the people I interviewed for this episode, as well as the many, many others who were helpful during my research. They include Ashley Remmer of Girl Museum, the nice people at the Strong, as well as Alison Robinson, Keith Mashad, Emily Gallagher, Elizabeth Yang, Patrick Ryan, Miranda Sachs, Emily Agrilo-Perez, and Chris Cornelis. And thanks to the podcast Between the Liner Notes, which is where I first learned about Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
And all right, there are people who love Teddy bears, and then there are people who love Teddy bear so much that they build a museum. And the funny thing is, you cannot predict who will become whom. Steve of the Den of Marbletown certainly couldn't have. He worked as a television news producer and a chef, but then he got married and a seed was planted in the form of a collectible Teddy bear from his mother-in-law.
Steve Ferri: When I first joined their family, I started getting bears in the mail and I asked my wife what's going on? And she's like, "My mom wants you to be a gentleman Teddy bear collector." And I looked at her and said something like, "What is that?" But I love animals, and I love things built to last. And I knew she was working on me to get the collection that no one else seemed interested in, so when I realized I was going to get it, I thought, "Well, what am I going to do with it?" And I wanted to share it because I was really enamored by the whole thing, actually. It really kind of grew on me.
Jason Feifer: And Steve really has done it. If you're in Marbletown, New York, go check the place out. All right, that's all for this time. Thanks for listening to Build For Tomorrow. I'm Jason Feifer, and we'll see you in the near future.
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