(This post was originally published here on January 23, 2017.)
Did you know that teddy bears, one of the most beloved children’s toys of all time, were inspired by President Theodore Roosevelt? I went on a bit of a TED Talk kick a couple years ago, and Jon Mooallem’s story about President Roosevelt and the history of teddy bears caught my attention. His speech presents the compelling argument that our perceptions of wildlife can impact how and why we engage in conservation efforts- I highly recommend you check it out here.
As Mr. Mooallem explains in his talk, Teddy Roosevelt was an avid hunter and outdoorsmen. He was known for being a conservationist, and according to the National Park Service website, “After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments by enabling the 1906 American Antiquities Act. During his presidency,Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.” For these reasons, he is a personal hero of mine.
(Side note- Thank you, President Roosevelt, for establishing Crater Lake National Park– I’m looking forward to road-tripping there this summer!)
So, how does all of this history relate to teddy bears? In November 1902, the governor of Mississippi invited President Roosevelt on a bear hunting trip. The hunters had no luck the first day, but on the second day, the dogs managed to corner a black bear. Having given up for the day, President Roosevelt was back at camp, eating lunch. His hunting guide stunned the bear, tied it to a tree, and called for the president to have the honor of shooting the bear himself. When Teddy Roosevelt arrived on the scene, he felt pity for the bear and refused to shoot it. Doing so would violate the principles of sportsmanship, he believed.
Word of President Roosevelt’s act of mercy spread, and the incident was soon turned into a political cartoon depicting the president with his gun down, arm outstretched, and a little bear with oversized ears and eyes wide in fear. A candy shop owner named Morris Mitchom saw the cartoon and became inspired to create a doll-like toy modeled after the bear. He placed a couple of the toys in his shop’s window with a sign proclaiming them to be, “Teddy’s Bear.” The toy rapidly grew in popularity, and Mr. Mitchom eventually started a company to begin mass- producing them after receiving permission from the president to use his name. Thus, the teddy bear was born.
It should be noted that the bear ended up being killed by the hunting guide, but this part is often glossed over when the story is told. If you’re interested in a more detailed account, check out the Smithsonian’s article on this story.
Presidential history AND teddy bears? This stood out to me as a lesson that my first graders needed to learn! With President’s Day in mid-February, I thought it would be the perfect way to infuse our social studies standards with a bit of Valentine’s Day fun. I put together a lesson that introduced an age-appropriate version of the story and included a fun writing and craft activity.
They ate it up last year- I can’t wait to use it again this February! I’m thinking of ending the day with a “Teddy Bear Picnic” to go along with the song that became popular shortly after teddy bears were first created- you can find it on YouTube.
Edited January 2021: With so many students learning online this year, this lesson needed a facelift! Now it includes a 14-page Google Slides (TM) presentation in addition to the printable activities, so it’s perfect for online, in-person, or hybrid learning. The Google Slides (TM) presentation includes on every slide, making it easy to assign to your students as an independent, distance-learning activity if desired!
I’m happy to answer any questions or feedback about this activity– just email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for stopping by!