My paternal grandfather hailed from a line that included vaudevillians. Despite his predictable union job with the gas company, he was an informal comedian, who kept a bowl of hard candies next to his chair to lure his grandchildren in close for a test drive of new material, and gravitated to all manner of merry prankstering. It never struck me as odd that a grown man had a Teddy bear. It sat in a leather chair with brass tack buttons holding down the cushion while Grandpa opted for the stiff wooden chair when he worked as his desk.
I wish I had had the foresight to ask him why he gave the bear such a lofty spot in his realm. I knew that we were not to play with the battered, hinged-limbed bear. We couldn’t even move him to sit when we came to pester Grandpa at his desk. Instead, we stood, secretly resentful. It was one of the few things he was downright humorless about.
Local writer Patricia Thorne grew up with the story of her grandfather, Albion Parris Thorne, a man whose hearing had been compromised in childhood due to a bout of Scarlet fever. In her newly released book, “The Untold Story of the Teddy Bear,” she tells how he remained an imp well into adulthood when a job with a toy company led him to meet the first ever stuffed bears in Germany, which were masterminded in the late 1800s by a paraplegic woman named Margarete Steiff. The bear evolved from Steiff’s desire not to be a burden on her family and began with sewing lessons.
Thorne, a writer, photographer and graphic artist, spent nearly a decade meticulously tracing back how Grandad and Steiff came together over the toy, and how the name “Teddy” was given to the iconic bear, because, as family legend went and her research has shown, her grandfather had a particular fondness for then President Theodore Roosevelt. The president became linked with the image of a bear when a press cartoonist traveling with him during a trip to liaise discord in the South documented how his staff, upon Roosevelt’s return from an unsuccessful hunt, found a small bear and tethered it to a tree so he could bag the quarry. The president declined but that event was forged in the elder Thorne’s mind when the stuffed bears came to the United States and his company began to market them.
The author ascribes much of the characters of the bear to the circumstances, hardships, war, famine, the great Chicago fire and even health-related issues that bound the tenacious bear-backers, although they’d never met.
She also explains how the bear became the symbol of homeland, childhood, ties to important events and comfort. An article by Jim Ownby published in the Washington Post in 1982 is quoted in the book.
“There’s a lot of hate, tension, and fear in today’s world that could be countered by the therapeutic effect of the Teddy bear,” the article states. “There is something metaphysical about Teddy bears that’s hard to explain. But when you hold one in your arms, you can’t help but smile.”
She reminds readers of how the character Radar in “MASH” held tight to his bear and how stories have revealed that today’s soldiers have often packed their childhood bears with them on assignment overseas.
“The bear has been known to alleviate loneliness in the elderly, and it can ease stress for young, up-and-coming people in today’s accelerated business world. Just looking at the Teddy bear’s tranquil face can induce relaxation.”
Thorne said she wrote the book for her children and grandchildren, but by its end she had found the story had a broader potential impact, just as the once bristly and heavy bear has.
“The message I hope people will get from reading my book is that the three key people featured in this story, my grandfather, Margarete Steiff and President Roosevelt, are an inspiration in that all three were able to rise above extreme personal handicaps to not only be successful in their chosen field of work, but were also the reason I ended it with the message in the epilogue that we can’t always control what happens to us in life, but how we respond to it is something we can control.”
I may never be able to decipher the meaning that bear had to my Grandpa, but when chatting up the cousin who I mistakenly thought got custody of the bear when he died in 2003 at the age of 94, he did recall hearing the bear came from the St. Louis World’s Fair, where Thorne says the bear made it’s American debut in the summer of 1904 to popularity never seen before or since. LaClede Gas Co. was in St. Louis, and Grandpa’s family came over from Germany.
Perhaps, it was his link to home and history. Perhaps it was just a security beacon during uncertain times. But after reading Thorne’s book, there is no doubt that we owe a debt of gratitude and generations of comfort to those bold enough to think silly during the bleakest times and bestow the world’s most beloved toy on the world.
Wrap your arms around one
What: A copy of “The Untold Story of the Teddy Bear,” by local writer Patricia Thorne, who will be on hand for a cuddle and autograph.
When & Where: Friday, Nov. 23, from noon-2 p.m. at The Toy Store in Ketchum and in the Toy Store in the Sun Valley Mall from 3-5 p.m. Also at Chapter One Bookstore, Sunday, Nov. 25, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Books are for sale along with mink teddy bears at the Sheepskin Coat Factory as well.