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Adults bare love for popular teddy bears

Since a 1902 Clifford K. Berryman political cartoon in the Washington Post showing President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a little caged bear cub prompted toymakers to stitch and stuff the first teddys, the little critters have been faithful and well-loved childhood companions.

But the furry guys and gals are flying out of gift shops and toy stores, not to comfort little children, but to join others of their kind in collections cherished by adults.New mass-produced bears, one-of-a-kind bears created by "bear artists" and antique bears are avidly accumulated by collectors. It appears there is always room for one more, whether its a $10 teddy from the toy store or a $600 handmade original.

For the record, the top bear, based on price paid, is a 1904 Steiff bear named "Teddy Girl" which fetched $171,600 at a Christie's auction in London in 1994.

Though few disagree that there is charm in those sweet little faces, there is no accord on just what firm made the first teddy.

Morris and Rose Michtom, Russian immigrants, were inspired to create a jointed bear, according to collector John Fey in "The Teddy Bear Sourcebook." Morris wrote to the president asking permission to call his toy "Teddy." The president assented and the Michtoms' toy bear business prospered, later becoming the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co.

Across the pond and at about the same time in Germany, the Steiff Co. also began making a jointed stuffed bear. Bear factions still heatedly discuss which bear was first.

That is of little consequence to Susan Smyth and her favorite bear, Bunky.

Smyth, of Anderson Township, Ohio, is president of Smyth Management Resources. She is a collector with 15 bears. "I have a focused collection," she said, "not huge."

"I got my first bear when I was 3 or 4. But about 10 years ago, when I started traveling for business I acquired a bear, Bunky, to travel with me. Bunky is a Gund bear; she's a peach Bunky," Smyth said, noting that Bunky does not like to be called tan.

Everyone in her management consulting company has a Boyds bear as a business mascot. "One year an employee's mother knit a sweater for each bear," she said. "I once brought them all little sombreros from a business trip to Mexico." Some years, she said, the bears are costumed for Halloween.

Bunky has had all kinds of adventures while traveling in the business world.

She once was the first over a high wall as executives went through an outdoor obstacle course to build trust and teamwork skills.

On another occasion, Smyth had Bunky in the room during a session with business people. "Bunky became a `talking stick' and whoever had the bear could speak," Smyth said. After that session, every one of those participants purchased a bear. "If someone has a personal issue, they will call up and say `I need to talk to you, and bring your bear.' People in that company know when the bears are invited, the talk will be about people issues," she said.

Bunky's nose is worn off now, Smyth said, and the first bear has retired from travel and physical activity. But there is a new Bunky who travels while the original stays home and is "queen of all the bears."

Bears come in all shapes and sizes, from bouncing big ones to fully detailed half-inch miniatures that can easily rest in a thimble. Artist-made miniatures cost from $35 to $250; big brothers run $50 to $600 and more.

But even old and less than pristine childhood teddys with patches on their paws and bare spots in their mohair are accorded respect. No collector would call such a bear worn out. In the language of collectors and bear admirers, it is referred to as "well-loved."

When encountering a true teddy bear enthusiast, do not be surprised if he or she anthropomorphizes like crazy. Teddy lovers can find expressions of love, humor, even mischief, in mohair faces with glass eyes. They talk to their teddys and are convinced that teddys in their way, talk back.

It should come as no surprise, then, that bears often come fully clothed or that bear-keepers dress them after taking them home. Many stores that carry bears also sell bear accessories - from sweaters to full suits of clothing. Many collectors have complete wardrobes for their bears, changing outfits to match moods or seasons and even adding spectacles for when a bear feels like reading.

Cruise through the shops and peruse the bear magazines and you'll discover that most bears come with a name. "B" names - Byron, Bosley, Baxter - are popular, but old-fashioned names like Milo, Ogden and Winston for boys and Bessie, Cordelia and Tallulah for girls are also common. New bear parents are absolutely allowed, however, to rename their new friends.

Bear bodies can be made from natural or synthetic plush, mohair, Ultrasuede, leather, even recycled animal pelts. Eyes are glass, and paws are a contrasting material. Some bears come with a squeezable noisemaker in their tummies, while others just speak volumes with their eyes.

Many beloved bears are homemade and proud of it. Such bears from early in this century often have stationary heads, arms and legs with snap-on appendages.