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A hundred years of the teddy bear

Marion Kite
Senior Textiles Conservator

Figure 1

Figure 1. 'We say Goodbye Bump Bump Bump Going up the Stairs' by E H Shepherd, Museum No. E.607-1973 (click image for larger version)

2003 marks the centenary of the creation of the Teddy Bear. Although bears as toys and novelties were around before this time it is from November 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt refused to kill a bear cub while on a hunting trip, that their popularity can be dated. 'Teddy bears' have been part of childhood ever since, and these days for many, particularly antique dealers and collectors, they are an important part of adulthood too and can fetch high prices in the salerooms.

To mark the centenary, an exhibition 'Teddy Bear Story: 100 Years of the Teddy Bear' is being held in Liverpool from October 19th 2002 to 23rd February 2003 and in London at Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (BGMC) from 29th March 2003 to 31st December 2003. The bears come from many sources, including other museums and private collections, and BGMC planned to loan about 100 teddy bears to this exhibition.

The BGMC Collection currently comprises almost 200 bears, but none had either been surveyed or treated in the recorded past. Examining and working on a large number of teddy bears dating from 1905 to the present day provided an unequalled learning opportunity to assess materials and degradation properties, manufacturing techniques, wear patterns and domestic solutions to the problems of repairing a loved toy still in use. It also provided an opportunity to survey the collection in its entirety, determine its overall condition, and provide recommendations for an ongoing conservation strategy.

All bears were rated according to the 1-4 scale from Good to Unacceptable, with comments relating to display requirements/supports/mounts included. 188 Bears requiring 540 assessed hours of treatment were totalled for the whole collection. As only 240 hours of work were available to be allocated to this exhibition, this allowed the curator to select the bears most important to this exhibition, and also to include some which were most in need of treatment, while others were set aside for a future rotational work program.

Figure 2a

Figure 2a. Teddy with detached head, Museum No. Misc.1237-1991 (click image for larger version)

Conservation work for the exhibition was prioritised according to the rarity and importance of bears, but also including those most in need of treatment. The more modern of the bears (post 1960) were largely put aside. A total of 48 bears most important to the exhibition were selected to be treated. They were prioritised into two groups: those which required essential treatment and those which were stable but needed basic cleaning and cosmetic work. It was agreed that as many of the second group of bears would be treated as possible, by fitting them in as ‘extras’ between work on other projects. Because of evidence of insect infestation in some isolated groups of bears on display at BGMC, all bears from these areas and parcels of related teddy bear clothes stored with infected bears were included in a freezing programme. The bears were frozen at –28°C for a period of four days, and took an additional 15 hours work.


The construction of a teddy bear is straightforward, with only slight variations in the methods of attachment of heads and arms and legs to the torso. In most instances the head, legs and arms are made, then fixed to the body part using washers and either bolts, split pins or other fixing methods for articulation. The body is the last part to be stuffed and is closed either to the front or back. A variation is that the torso is completed with the arm and leg washers and fixings in place together with a circle of the teddy bear fabric. The stuffed arms and legs are then sewn onto this circle in the manner of setting a sleeve into an armhole. Finally the head with its washer, fixing and fabric circle are sewn onto the completed torso part. The stitching, which is often crude, is lost in the pile of the bear fabric. When the method chosen to articulate the arms, legs and head is not clear, and when these parts have become loose or come away, X-radiography of the bear is invaluable as nails, screws, split pins or other other parts of an internal armature or construction can clearly be highlighted.

Types of damage

Figure 2b

Figure 2b. X-radiograph of teddy showing position of attachment bolt for head, Museum No. Misc.1237-1991 (click image for larger version)

The main damage to teddy bears comes about through use which is often compounded by poor old repairs and long term poor storage. The plush pile wears away, feet and paws become worn and thin, and eventually the internal stuffing breaks through. Eyes and ears become loose and are sometimes torn off. Joint fixings either break and limbs fall off, or fixings become weak and stretched so heads fall forward and nod, and arms and legs become only loosely attached to the body. Over a long time of continuous use the stuffing compacts, breaks down and turns to dust, causing the bear to sag and the stuffing to be compacted at the ends of the arms and legs.

In our throw-away society, teddy bears are one of the few toys which are not a disposable item, so repairs have frequently been carried out at home to prolong the life of a loved companion for a small child distraught at the idea of being parted from their Teddy. Worn areas have been darned, feet and paws patched, often using leather from old gloves or old socks. Noses are re-embroidered and lost eyes replaced with buttons, new embroidered eyes, or a different and non-matching eye may have been substituted. Frequently, bears are forced into ill fitting garments which constrict the arms or body and over time crush the stuffing inside, causing deformation and weakness to the bear. Eventually put away and consigned to attics or other unsuitable long term storage, bears become dirty, dusty and insect-damaged. It is in this condition that many early 20th century bears come into museum collections, and this is certainly the case with much of the BGMC Collection.


Figure 3a

Figure 3a. Teddy with deformed arms due to sixty years wearing the same dress, Museum No. Misc.566-1984. Photography by Marion Kite (click image for larger version)

Conservation treatments for the BGMC bears consisted of removing old repairs, supporting weak areas, filling areas of loss, cleaning, re-attaching loose limbs and some reshaping and stuffing. Although it is customary practice to return an altered object to its earliest form, sometimes the alterations made during the life of an object are of great importance. Bears with a particular provenance, or related to a family of interest, might have had repairs that were of historic importance. It was therefore very important to liaise closely with the curator before commencing treatment. The treatments varied according to the fragility of the material from which the bear was made, and how the soiling had combined to the fabric.

Cleaning treatments utilised deionised water, IMS, detergent, chemical sponges, vacuuming, and most bears were lightly steamed and combed after cleaning, enhancing their sometimes rather crushed appearance. For repairs, couched supports of linen were used, colour matched to the original plush fabric. Feet and paws had colour-matched supports of cotton moleskin fabric. Sometimes colour-matched nylon net or Stabiltex was used to cover weak areas where inserted supports were not appropriate.Where loose body parts needed reattachment, it was necessary to partially unpick a seam to gain access to the joint. Colleagues in Metalwork Conservation provided replacement split pins and screws.

Figure 3b

Figure 3b. Teddy with deformed arms due to sixty years wearing the same dress, Museum No. Misc.566-1984. Photography by Marion Kite. (click image for larger version)

Re-stuffing sagging bears was a contentious ethical issue, with much debate among colleagues as to the most appropriate material to use, and whether they should be re-stuffed.Wood wool is still available, but is acidic and a hard material, and in some cases the degraded and worn fabric of the bears would not stand stuffing to the previous firm state. Polyester wadding was finally chosen as it is inert, light, and springy. It would hold its shape but exert very little tension against a fragile tendered ground fabric. It was used where it was necessary to give form to particularly sagging and crushed bears, but was however kept to a minimum as it meant opening seams.

By the packing deadline, by utilising allocated time plus odd hours, all 48 bears were treated. A total of 363 hours had been spent on conservation. Condition reporting of 318 bears prior to packing, including 4 substantial loan collections, took a further 35 hours. This included digital photography to illustrate specific areas of damage and soiling on bears without condition reports which were not museum objects. Some bears on loan from private collections also needed freezing as cocoons from case-bearing clothes moths were found matted into the mohair pile on several examples. This additional freezing accounted for another 15 hours work. To sum up: although only 240 hours treatment time was allocated by Textile Conservation to this exhibition, in reality 443 hours was spent on bringing it to a stage where it was ready to be packed for loan. Additionally, several other sections of the Collection Services Division also worked on this loan, accounting for many more hours.