Steiff, Bear, 1910-1912
© Les Arts Décoratifs / Jean Tholance

The undisputed king of toys, the teddy bear descends on the Musée des Arts décoratifs to tell his incredible story. Born at the very beginning of the 20th century, he quickly earned a place for himself in the hearts of children, dethroning toys whose existence dated back to Antiquity, like dolls or animals on wheels. Since then, the teddy bear has become the quasi-universal symbol of childhood, and synonymous with tenderness and gentleness. But how has the former king of animals, revered for his strength and feared for his ferocity, transformed into the most popular of toys?

The exhibition begins by recounting the eventful history of bears and human beings, from the first cohabitation in prehistoric caves to the bear handlers whose actions threatened the survival of the species. It continues with a look at the ancient ursine cults and their destruction by the Catholic Church, reducing the ancient pagan idol into a voracious, lazy, even demonic, animal.

The four hundred teddy bears from the museum’s collections tell the story of the birth of this toy in 1920 in Germany and the United States, as well as its transformations and successes. Since the first models made from mohair and wooden straw, which were heavy and rigid, the teddy bear has become more flexible and softer. He now comes in bright or pastel colours, making him the ideal cuddly toy. He reigns over an entire menagerie of stuffed animals, as well as works of children’s fiction, thanks to figures like Winnie the Pooh, Mishka the Bear, and Paddington.

Nowadays, while children abandon their toys at a younger and younger age, teddy bears have retained their allure thanks to this symbolic charge, the artists inspired by them, and the adults who keep them into adulthood. Staying close to one’s childhood companions is no longer a sign of immaturity but allows one to cultivate the part of childhood that lies within us all, giving voice to our spontaneity and creativity.

Far from the ferocious demigod that he once was, the bear has become— particularly in its polar version—the symbol of climate change and nature under threat. The various actions carried out to save the species, and the debates generated, show that the bear has never been, and never will be, an animal like any other.

Subscribe to our newsletter (in French)

You are…