In the Steiff museum, in the German town of Giengen, the mystery of the missing bears is explained to the visiting children with a tale that they were lost at sea. The idea of shipwrecked teddy bears – maybe living somewhere on a desert island – certainly captures the imagination, but is it true?
The facts are simple. Early one morning in 1903, a steamship was set to leave Bremen Harbour with the very special cargo on-board. On the ship are said to have been three-thousand, newly stitched, jointed bears – the very first ever made anywhere in the world. However, these events have become a mystery which has turned into the subject of collector’s dreams. No trace remains or has ever been found, neither has one ever turned up in someone’s attic or toy chest. So I thought I would try and find out just what happened to these, very first, toy bears.
One of the bears definitely made it to America. Late in 1902, a sample bear was produced and sent to America on-board the ship SS Hanover. The crate sent contained contracts, consignment documents and also a sample bear. Bear PB55, as it was known, has never been seen since, however. The current world record for the sale of a teddy bear is over £180,000 but it is certain PB55 would smash that record out of sight.
So far the facts are that Richard Steiff invented PB55 in late 1902 and a sample was made and shipped to America during the spring of 1903, where it did not sell. A year later twelve-thousand bears were sent to American and every single one of them sold and there are shipping and customs records for these bears proving that they did exist and were shipped. However, they were not bear PB55 they were a later model – PB35 – which was shorter, cuter, more blonde and a little more user-friendly for children. There is concrete evidence that this all happened but now we have to enter the realms of speculation.
The story of the ship-wrecked bears first started in 1953 when Steiff were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the teddy bear. The story was quickly spread by a member of Steiff’s marketing department who was writing a little festival book. Many people who work for Steiff believe that the story is not true but, instead, is a very clever little marketing idea and nothing else.
So was a ship stuffed with bears really lost at sea somewhere between Bremen and New York? It seems most unlikely. However, the romantic in me likes to imagine a shoal of bears floating serenely through a shimmering blue ocean before washing up, waterlogged, in the surf of some pristine shore. Destined to live out their lives on a desert island.
Just where they would find their Jammy Toast on a desert island is perhaps a bigger mystery.
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