Antique Interior Decorating: Teddy Bears

Children have always valued their toys, but as playthings and companions to be loved, abused and discarded, according to mood and whim. It is adults who have elevated them to the display cabinet. Who would have dreamt 15 years ago that the major auction houses would devote sales entirely to teddy bears, attracting buyers from all over the world prepared to part with thousands of pounds for a coveted teddy bears…

A teddy bear is more than the sum of his parts, but scrutinizing the parts is as good a way as any to ascertain date, country of origin, authenticity, condition and even maker.


Identification and authenticity

Look at the fabric: original old bears (pre-1930) are usually of wool mohair. After that date, new materials were introduced, such as cotton and silk plush and later, in the 1950s, nylon and other synthetic fabrics. Next, try to determine what stuffing has been used. You can do this by assessing the bear’s weight: if he is light, he is probably stuffed with kapok (possibly mixed with wood wool); heavier bears that are crunchy to the touch are probably stuffed with wood wool. After about 1940 new, lighter materials were used, of sub stuffing, and later on, lightweight foam.


A beautiful white c1908 antique 18.5 inch antique Steiff bear. Steiff button in ear, original eyes, pads, no restoration- tummy seam may have been re secured at some point. Bear has approx 80% mohair coverage to her front with approx 70% cover to back elevation.

Then look at the ears, eyes and nose. The ears should be correctly positioned. Check the teddy bear’s head for signs of where different ears might once have been stitched, in which case, the present ones are almost certainly replacements. The eyes should also be scrutinized: if the teddy bear was made before 1914, he should have boot-button eyes. During the 1920s, though, glass eyes became the norm. Plastic was sometimes used from the 1950s.


Merrythought bears, c1930

Then look closely at the nose stitching, as this is a good way to identify a bear’s maker, each company tending to have its own distinctive type of stitching. Most noses were made of silk thread; black wool noses are probably replacements. Keep in mind, though, that replacement ears, eyes or nose do not make a teddy bear unbuyable or unsaleable – but any alterations should be reflected in the price.

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German Toy Maker Otto Steiff (Otto was an international distributor and advertising specialist around 1900)


Richard Steiff, father of Otto (he made many drawings and sketches, especially of the bears. These drawings formed the basis of the first teddy bear and later stuffed animals made by Steiff.)

The next area requiring attention is the paw pads: if these are original on earlier antique teddy bears they will be of felt, or perhaps cotton; teddy bears made in the 40s and later may have plush or leather pads; ultrasuede has been used from the 70s. Pads are often replaced and as long as they are sympathetic to the originals, should not detract too much from the value.

teddy-bear1 teddy-bear2

left: year: 1935, height: 18″/45cm, color: cinnamon, A typical Knickerbocker bear from that period. It has a shaven, long, but snub snout. Bent, small narrowing arms and big feet. A thin straight body without a hump.
right: year: 1940, height: 20″/50cm, color: golden mohair, A real cuddly toy with a round head, put on snout and chubby arms and legs. Filled with kapok.

An assessment of the above details will help you date and confirm the authenticity of your teddy bear. You may also find more concrete evidence of the maker, and possibly even the date, in a label. These may be in the form of embroidered tags attached to the fur, or metal tags, usually on the ear or arm. However, some teddy bears, especially early ones, had no tags at all or only flimsy paper ones which have long parted from the bear. You should always check that the teddy bear itself seems consistent with the maker whose name appears on any label, just in case the label has been added to the bear at a later date.

american antique teddy bears

Early, Antique American Teddy Bears Circa 1915: Fully jointed, glass eyes, felt pads.

Care and maintenance of teddy bear

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Condition is important to price. If the teddy bear is dressed, always look under the clothes to make sure they are not concealing any defects. Never attempt any restoration yourself, but instead seek specialist advice to ensure that the bear is restored in materials and details sympathetic to the original. If you do decide to have a teddy bear restored, remember that the work may change his character.

teddy bears1

The simplest, most effective areas of restoration include restuffing, and replacement pads, eyes or nose stitching. You can clean your teddy bear yourself. Start by brushing or hoovering him (with the nozzle covered) in order to remove any bugs and dust. Then, using a small brush apply a solution of very mild wool wash and cool water to the fur. Use as little solution as possible, being careful not to overwet the fur. Remove the foam with a dry cloth; you may also need to use a damp cloth at the end. Rinse the cloth in water and keep dabbing the fur until you have removed all the soap. Leave him to dry naturally before combing the fur using a fine metal comb. You may need to carry out this procedure again. Once he is really clean you’ll be able to maintain him with just an annual wash and the occasional brush to keep away dirt and insect-attracting dust.


Storage and display

Teddy bears should be stored away from sources of heat, whether central heating or a fire. They should also be kept away from direct sunlight, as this will cause the fur to fade. If your teddy bear is going to be stored rather than displayed, keep him in a cool, dry place, perhaps in a cardboard box lined with acid-free tissue paper. Don’t forget to put in some moth balls. When it comes to display, bears are very versatile and look good just about anywhere, whether nestled comfortably in the family armchair or sitting proudly on a display or other table. Bears can look very appealing on an old rocking horse or in a pram.

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