Gifting the bear and a nostalgic desire for childhood innocence.

Author:Varga, Donna

Each and every human being at one time or other has wanted a teddy bear to give them friendship and companionship (Andrews 2004, 1).


Imagine a child holding tightly onto a teddy bear. The bear's face wears a comforting smile; the child's shows openness and peacefulness. This is an iconic image that from the early twentieth century has symbolized the toy's assumed protective innocence shielding the otherwise vulnerable innocent from real or feared harm. The line drawing shown here, from a 1920 children's picture book, reflects this illusory simplicit. Produced by instilling emotional labor in adult products (Hochschild 1983, 160), this commoditized compassion is constitutive of the adult teddy bear culture that by the 1920s, privileged the toy as a redeemer of individual human frailty and of human social failings. Unlike children's fantasy, the dominant beliefs and values of this adult culture are governed by an emotive sentimentality that depicts the teddy bear as possessing real feelings toward humans. Thus, as a result of the creation of the teddy bear as emotive subject, the ideology of teddy bear culture sees the personal sacrifice of superfluous material goods as both all that is necessary and sufficient for the personal and social restitution of humanity.

This article provides a socio-cultural history of that transfiguration and of its relationship to the activity of teddy bear gifting: the provision of teddy bears as a means for alleviating the alienated emotional self. Adult teddy bear culture is identified as an outcome of the late nineteenth-century symbiosis of child-animal nature in popular and scientific culture. Over the first half of the twentieth century, the ideologies of the child as young animal and animals as sentient beings became embodied in the teddy bear, which, in turn, became representative of white childhood innocence. From the second half of that century and continuing into the twenty-first, the toy was further imbued with social, emotional, and material capacities of transformative love.

Examining the mythology of the teddy bear's origins and the infusion of the item with a commoditized sentimentality reveals how it has become possible for the teddy to be reified as therapeutic artifact, and for its gifting to become an act of social justice seen as equivalent to donations of food, clothing, and financial aid. It can be tempting to dismiss or mock adult reverence for the teddy as nothing more than kitsch, but Ehrenreich (Ehrenreich 2001, 43-53) has warned of the ways that the all-encompassing nature of kitsch in the lives of women suffering from breast cancer is built upon a social alienation that celebrates passive social interaction in place of real social change. Similarly, Sturken's Tourists of History, explains that the teddy bear's cultural promise is to, by its presence alone, "make us feel better about the way things are," (Sturken 2007, 7) to quell the possibility for anger, rebellion, aggression, or hate against personal and social conditions. Coupling its socio-cultural history to the analyses of Sturken and Ehrenreich, I argue that the gifting of teddy bears, a commercialized relational artifact, is a practice that inherently replaces real social and political engagements with a dehumanizing relationship to things.

The Birth of an Icon

Happy birthday, teddy bear

It's been 100 years.

Happy birthday, teddy bear

We're glad that you are here

(Pell 2002).

The origin of the teddy bear toy and its value as ambassador of love is situated within a mythological outcome of a November 14, 1902 hunt, when President Theodore Roosevelt is deemed to have freed a bear that had been roped for him to kill. In different tellings, the captured bear is variously described as "old", "young", "sick", or, according to a 1926 magazine article, as "only eighteen inches tall" (Crenshaw 1926, 62). The narrative also places the event as being on the last day of a failed hunting venture during a break in border negotiations between Mississippi and Louisiana. Some accounts characterize Roosevelt as being an unenthusiastic participant in the hunt who takes the captured bear as a White House pet; at other times, the President is said to have taken the bear to a zoo or taken the bear's pelt to the Smithsonian for preservation.

The year 2002 was celebrated in North America, Europe, and Asia as the 100th birthday of the origin of the teddy bear. In Mississippi, this anniversary was even marked with a resolution designating the teddy bear, or teddy, as the official state toy with the legislature stating that "the stuffed bear toy, appropriately named the 'Teddy Bear,' evolved and continues to be a universal symbol of love, comfort and joy for children of all ages"(Mississippi Legislature 2002). In the resolution's wording, President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt is reconstituted as bear sympathizer, a soft-cloth child's toy becomes a humanitarian ambassador, and Mississippi, a state with a long history of violence, is constructed as the source of this empathetic creature.

Frank Murphy's children's book, The Legend of the Teddy Bear further buttresses the legitimacy of this narrative by explaining that while, "many legends are based on fiction...the story of Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot that based on fact" (Murphy 2000, no page). Murphy blends hagiography with patriotism by claiming that Mississippi and Louisiana, "wanted this great and fair man to settle an argument about a boundary line" (Ibid). He propagates the President's folkloric status by denoting him as akin to the common man, while at the same time being "adored" by "the people of America" (Ibid). In reality, Roosevelt was of Fifth Avenue old New York stock who had not yet established a Presidential reputation, given that he had only succeeded to the office in September 1901 upon the shooting death of President McKinley, and towards whom there were wide-spread feelings of disgruntlement (Dalton 2002; Watts 2003).

Murphy's text and illustrations accentuate the fear and suffering of a captured cub, roped by the neck with two dogs at bay. Roosevelt, though toughened by life in the outdoors, displays a benevolence that belies the hunting discourse of his time:

Some of the men in the president's group cornered a young bear. Barking dogs surrounded the frightened bear, as the men roped and tied it to a tree... The frightened bear clawed at the rope, trying to free itself. The bear whipped his head back and forth. Its back feet kicked up clouds of dust and dirt. Teddy looked down at his rifle and then... laid it on the ground. He shouted out to his men, "Stop badgering that bear! It is helpless. Let it go!" (no page) The key points of this and similar stories for both children and adults are: hunters other than Roosevelt capture the bear; Roosevelt, disgusted by the act, orders its release; the bear escapes unharmed. The variations on this myth are globally disseminated through the Smithsonian, popular publications and websites for adults, children's picture books, and scholarly histories of Theodore Roosevelt. These have been successful in displacing real knowledge of Roosevelt's hunting behaviors with fictitious reminiscences of him as a selfless animal protector. This substitution has been a necessary component of teddy bear culture; it provides the model for love to be transferred from human to bear, which is then imagined as being reciprocated by the bear, through its lifeless representative in the form of the teddy bear, to humans.

The actual events of the hunt need repeating here not only to counter the proliferation of inaccurate accounts, but also because the facts provide context for an alyzing gifting behavior. On November 14, 1902 Roosevelt was engaged in the first day of a bear hunt in the canebrakes of the Mississippi Delta. It had been planned weeks in advance by Roosevelt as a holiday to recuperate from the taxing endeavors of resolving the anthracite coal strike that had paralyzed the Eastern seaboard (President's Trip 1902, 9). According to Holt Collier, the esteemed African American hunter who was the party's guide, Roosevelt insisted on being the first to kill a bear (Buchanan 2002, 167). This could not be guaranteed if the hunters were to follow the dogs, as the Delta terrain made it impossible to herd the bear toward a specific hunter. Roosevelt was, therefore, positioned in a blind, stationed in an open area where Collier assumed a bear could be driven out (Ibid).

Select journalists who had been allowed to the hunt site, and who published identical stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times provided an account of the events. It was reported that Roosevelt returned to the camp when it appeared that the bear would not be flushed until late in the day, but, in Roosevelt's absence, the bear emerged at the spot where he had been placed (One Bear Bagged 1902, 1; One Bear Falls Prey 1902, 1). The bear, having been chased into a water hole, attacked and killed one of the hunting dogs. Collier, who later expressed exasperation with Roosevelt's desertion of his assigned post and thus failure to prevent the ensuing mayhem, acted to save his remaining dogs by clubbing the bear with his rifle. He then tethered the comatose animal to a tree so that Roosevelt could have his kill (Buchanan 2002, 170). Roosevelt declined, probably because his political enemies would have used his shooting of an unconscious bear against him. A fellow hunter attempted to kill the bear by knife, but his lack of skill only caused the animal further torment; so Collier finished the task by stabbing the bear through the heart (Buchanan 2002, 171-2). The carcass was taken back to camp where it was deemed to have been an adult weighing 250 pounds and the body was consumed over the next couple of meals, with a paw roast for Sunday's dinner (Quiet Day in Camp 1902, 1).

The day after the story about the hunt was...

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