Sort of Cute, Sort of Creepy Teddy Bears and the Grown-Ups Who Love Them

Nina Leen—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Nina Leen—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "The two Teddies who started it all."

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Medal of Honor recipient, New York City police commissioner, America’s youngest president, Mount Rushmore visage, Dakota cowboy, trust-buster — Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr., packed so much living into his 60 years on earth that the phrase “larger than life” sometimes seems to have been coined expressly for him.

But it’s as the man who inspired a fluffy bedtime toy that Roosevelt left one of his most enduring legacies. On a hunting trip in 1902 (so the story goes) the young president refused to shoot a black bear — a refusal somewhat at odds with the man’s well-earned reputation as a hunter who killed countless birds and beasts, without compunction, for decades. At any rate, a toymaker in New York learned of T.R.’s merciful moment and, inspired, created a toy bear — a “teddy bear.” (Roosevelt, incidentally, always despised the name Teddy.) The bear was an immediate hit, and for the past century has remained one of the tried and true emblems of childhood.

In December 1970, LIFE featured a number of adults who, long years after their childhoods had ended, still retained a fondness for the fluffy companions of their youth. The resulting photos by Nina Leen are somehow sweet and, at the same time, just a little bit unsettling.

Many children have a brief, passionate attachment to a teddy bear and then move on to other toys [LIFE wrote]. But to a faithful fraternity of adults, the bear they had in childhood has become a lifelong companion. These arctophiles (friends of the bear) have clung to their bears through fire and flood, the passage of years, the coming of children and grandchildren. The bears and their owners have endured each other for decades, and though all lead normal active lives, none are too busy to pass the time of day with their oldest friends.

Elderly bears are characterized by those who live with them as “placid,” “serene” and “radiating contentment.” While all teddy bears are steadfast and loyal, the same cannot be said for all their owners. Christopher Robin, whose bear was the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh, simply discarded him like an old rocking horse. Pooh, who is now 50, lives far from home in a glass case in an American publishing house.

NOTE: Since 1987, the original, well-worn, beloved Pooh and four of his friends — Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and Kanga — have resided at The New York Public Library at 42nd and Fifth in Manhattan. Visitors to the library, young and old, can see Pooh and his friends year-round in their grand home.

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