The teddy bear owes its origins to a Kentucky native

Clifford  Berryman,
a Woodford County native, drew a cartoon pairing Teddy Roosevelt with a bear cub.
Clifford Berryman, a Woodford County native, drew a cartoon pairing Teddy Roosevelt with a bear cub. Lexington Herald-Leader

VERSAILLES — Teddy bears once again fill retail shelves for fast-approaching Valentine's Day. But many Kentuckians might not realize there is a Bluegrass State connection to how plush bears came to be one of the most successful toys ever made.

Clifford Berryman, a Woodford County native who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for The Washington Post, drew a sketch in 1902 of President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captured cub.

The image was reprinted nationwide and became the template for cuddly stuffed bears during the past cen tury. But there's a lot more to that story.

Roosevelt had indeed refused to shoot a bear near Smedes, Miss., but it was an adult black bear surrounded by baying dogs, not a cub, according to The Wilderness Warrior, a 2011 book about Roosevelt by presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

The bear had been stunned by Holt Collier, a black guide whose bear-tracking exploits were legendary. Under instructions to save the first bear kill for Roosevelt, Collier had hit the cornered animal with the barrel of a rifle — so hard, in fact, that it bent the barrel and rendered the gun useless.

Collier then lassoed the bear around the neck and tied it to a tree. Roosevelt was summoned but was dismayed by the scene of a "badly stunned, immobile bear tied to a tree, groaning for air," Brinkley writes.

Accompanying hunters cried in unison, "Let the president shoot the bear!" But Roosevelt declined, apparently feeling that to shoot the animal would violate the sportsman's code of never shooting any captured animal for recreation.

Instead, John Parker, chairman of Illinois Central Railroad and host of the hunt, stuck a knife into the bear's ribs. The single stab failed to kill the bear, so Collier was left with the unenviable task of finishing the job "on a very angry animal," Brinkley writes.

The bear's carcass was slung over a horse and brought back to camp by Collier. Three bears were killed during that 1902 hunt, though none by Roosevelt.

The next day's Post featured Berryman's cartoon depicting Roosevelt with one hand holding a rifle butt to the ground and the other thrust out in a firm "No!" The caption read: "Drawing the Line in Mississippi."

Now, a little about Berryman. He was raised in Clifton, on the Kentucky River. His desire to express himself through art came early. As a child he drew a "good, sound spanking" from his father when he decided to apply shoe polish to his parents' house, which had just been repainted in "fresh, glistening white."

"I never had any use for brushes after that," Berryman said in an interview. "I've always worked with a pen."

In 1886, Berryman became a draftsman with the U.S. Patent Office. Then, in 1896, he became a cartoonist on the staff of The Washington Post. He eventually rose to become a Washington institution; politicians knew they had "arrived" when they were subjects of a "Cliff" Berryman cartoon.

While the press had a good laugh over Roosevelt's failure to bag a bear, Berryman's drawing of the president refusing to shoot captured the public's imagination. Berryman's original cartoon in The Post depicted the bear as an adult; a later revision by Berryman depicted the bear as a smaller, more cuddly cub. From that point on, all of Berryman's drawings of Roosevelt included a bear cub.

Meanwhile, Rose Michtom of Brooklyn, N.Y., impressed by the president's sportsmanship, made two plush toy bears with black buttons for eyes. Her husband, Morris, put the stuffed bears in the window of his stationery and novelty store, and they sold immediately.

This gave Michtom an idea: why not seek the president's permission to market the toy as "Teddy's Bear"? The president supposedly wrote back a few lines, saying he didn't think his name would add much value to the venture, but he granted Michtom permission to do so.

With that, the popularity of teddy bears exploded. The Michtoms sold their bears for $1.50 apiece and couldn't fill orders fast enough. By 1907, the demand for cuddly stuffed bears was so great that the Michtoms formed Ideal Novelty and Toy Co.

At the same time, Margarete Steiff, a seamstress in Giengen, Germany, also began making plush bears. When one was put on display at a 1903 toy fair in Leipzig, a wealthy American buyer ordered 3,000 to be shipped to New York.

Roosevelt was presented with one of these bears and ordered several hundred to be used as table decorations for his daughter Alice's wedding reception. The Steiffs, like the Michtoms, called their new toy the "Teddy Bear."

Soon, dozens of other companies started making their own bears. But Roosevelt always gave credit to Berryman for starting the ball rolling.

"My dear Mr. Berryman, you have the real artist's ability to combine great cleverness and keen truthfulness with entire freedom from malice," Roosevelt wrote to the cartoonist on Jan. 4, 1908. "Good citizens are your debtors."

After Roosevelt left the White House in 1909, another toy company sought to cash in with a stuffed animal named for the incoming president, William Howard Taft. It was a plush opossum with a prehensile tail that allowed it to hang upside down from a branch. It was marketed under the slogan "Good-bye Teddy Bear. Hello Billy Possum."

"Unfortunately," Brinkley writes, "with its weird pink eyes, frightening grin, and ratlike tail, Billy Possum was one stuffed critter children refused to hug. The toy was a flop."

Teddy bears, on the other hand, established the image of Roosevelt as an outdoorsman.

"The teddy bear probably had more to do with this image than his setting aside of more than 230 million acres of federal park lands," Brink ley writes.

As for Berryman, he continued to draw for The Washington Post until 1907, then went to The Washington Star. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1944. He died five years later of a heart ailment, and was buried in Washington.

Teddy bears, which are easily a multibillion-dollar business, live on.