At the end of a Sunday walk around Theodore Roosevelt Island, my family and I stumbled upon a Park Service ranger clutching a teddy bear. My son Aaron -- sensing that he was in the presence of a fellow believer in the wisdom of always keeping a stuffed animal within reach -- drew near, and soon enough we were all listening as the ranger told the story of T.R. and the birth of the teddy bear.
In this commercially minded world, the tale most often told about the first bear tends to be that of Morris and Rose Mitchtom, the New York couple who wrote to the president asking permission to name their newly stitched toy bear in his honor. But the real origin of the teddy bear is a Washington story, and one that is hearteningly free of marketing hype. It is a story that begins with a cartoon in this very newspaper, 100 years ago this Saturday.
The Post's cartoonist occupied important turf in the newspaper in those days. Clifford Berryman's daily commentaries on the city, nation and world were played at the top center of Page One. On Nov. 16, 1902, the lead story in the paper was headlined "Bruin Was In Luck." The brief, non-bylined dispatch out of Smedes, Miss., where the president was on a hunting expedition, chronicled Roosevelt's repeated failure to land a bear, despite nine days of chases.
Today, concern over image and political correctness would prohibit any White House press office from allowing this sort of access to a presidential hunt, but even a century ago, staffers knew that the president must finish his bear hunt with a trophy.
And so, just before Roosevelt was to return to Washington empty-handed, he was alerted that his dog pack had cornered a bear in a clearing. He came rushing over, gun in hand. Alas, he was led toward a bear that had been bashed with a rifle butt and tied to a tree so that the unlucky hunter-president could finish him off. T.R. -- highly attuned to the nuances of mythmaking -- refused, declaring such behavior unsportsmanlike.
In his Post cartoon, Berryman showed a proud and correct president extending his arm against the defenseless bear; the caption reads, "Drawing the Line in Mississippi."
Reader reaction was swift and adoring. Berryman was besieged with requests for copies. The cartoonist made the bear cuter with each rendering -- the animal came to bear an eerie resemblance to the as-yet-unborn Mickey Mouse -- and within days, it was clear that he had created a cultural phenomenon.
A century later, I visited the basement lair of Wendy Kail, archivist at Tudor Place, the historic Georgetown mansion of the late recluse Armistead Peter, who, it turns out, had something of an obsession with Berryman's work. Kail has assembled a splendid collection of Berryman cartoons, bookplates and correspondence, telling the story of a kind artist who drew and knew every president from Grover Cleveland to Harry Truman.
"People just loved Berryman," Kail says. "Even the ones he skewered asked him for copies of his cartoons."
Roosevelt's friends sensed immediately that Berryman's bear was a boon to the president's popularity. Henry Cabot Lodge asked the cartoonist for a copy of the original to give to T.R., and before long the bear became a stand-in for Roosevelt in Berryman's daily drawings. The bear also became Berryman's alter ego, omnipresent in his cartoons -- like Pat Oliphant's penguin in our era.
There were teddy bears on Berryman's stationery, Christmas cards, and the calendars he drew for The Post to distribute to its readers. Kail found a bear even on Berryman's signature on his will: "I kept thinking, this cannot be possible -- on a will! -- especially in Washington, D.C."
But Berryman, who later jumped to the Washington Star (on the day in 1907 when he switched papers, he had a cartoon in The Post in the morning and one in the Star that evening), resisted his friends' suggestions that he copyright the figure. He said he was satisfied with the pleasure his drawings gave others.
It was a different world.
Berryman took the streetcar each day from Adams Morgan to the paper so he could study the faces of Washingtonians. He invented a symbol for the District, "Miss Washington," a Statue of Liberty look-alike who stood tall as she suffered the insults of Congress.
Berryman's departure from The Post was such a blow that the paper decided it would rather go without a cartoonist than replace him with a lesser talent. It wasn't until 16 years later that The Post again offered its own daily cartoon.
While Berryman caricatured powerful senators and lampooned the District's inability to handle a snowstorm -- his subjects were not just news stories, but eternal verities -- his teddy bear became a staple of childhood, made first by the Mitchtoms and then by Steiff, the German stuffed animal firm. By 1907, Steiff was turning out a million teddy bears a year -- by some accounts, the first recorded merchandising fad. Early teddy bears have fetched nearly $200,000 at auction.
Berryman "never made a penny from the bear," Kail says. He died in 1949, not long after collapsing at the entrance to the Star building.
His drawings turn up in antiquarian shops now and then; Kail has picked them up for as little as $15.
And somewhere deep in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institution, there is a bear pelt from the very same creature that Roosevelt had declined to shoot. The injured bear was put out of its misery that same day, after the president and the reporters were safely on their way back to Washington.
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