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Historical Museum & Village displays collection of vintage, rare teddy bears

By Staff | Jan 11, 2011

Decorating the Burnap Cottage with a collection of teddy bears, Paula Newton and Mary McLaughlin customized the displays throughout the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village.

Back in November 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt was taking part in a hunting excursion in Mississippi. After the President failed to make a kill during the outing, his hosts trapped and tethered a black bear so Roosevelt’s trip would not end without his bagging a trophy.

Not wanting to shoot at a sitting target, Roosevelt refused to take part in the unsportsmanlike act and spoke the now immortal words: “Spare the bear!”

Shortly afterwards, a political cartoon that appeared in The Washington Post depicted the incident, and Roosevelt was heralded a wildlife hero. Later that same month, a pair of Brooklyn shopkeepers created a soft toy in honor of the animal and the American icon who spared its life, naming their creation Teddy’s Bear.

The toy was an instant sensation. And the teddy bear craze was born.

Through the end of January, the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village is displaying their vast collection of teddy bears, which encompasses many different types, shapes, colors and sizes of the stuffed toy beloved by young and old alike.

A teddy bear displayed in a highchair, in the kitchen of the Rutland House.

According to Mary McLaughlin, the museum’s Acquisitions Director, the museum is home to a collection of more than 50 teddy bears of all vintages, each of them donated by islanders. A large assortment came from Sanibel resident Jackie Rauschert, a longtime village docent.

Last week, McLaughlin and volunteer/docent Paula Newton began to distribute the teddy bears throughout the seven historic buildings that make up the village. The pair helped create custom sayings that accompany the stuffed toys, such as “Friends Make Life Bearable” and “Everything I learned In Life I Learned From My Teddy Bear.”

“I did a little research about famous bear sayings,” explained McLaughlin. “Then, we tried to decide which bears and which sayings would go best in each building here.”

For example, a large bear wearing a dunce cap is featured in the Old Sanibel Schoolhouse next to a sign which reads, “Teddy Bears Rule.” At the Post Office, a teddy bear wearing a University of Kentucky sweater is positioned next to an unmailed letter with the phrase “Can’t Bear To Be Without You” next to them.

Newton, standing in the Sanibel Packing House, helped gather together the collection. She noted that the dozens of bears within the collection only scratches the surface as to what the museum archives contain.

Mary McLaughlin places an assortment of bears on the bed inside the Rutland House.

“This is our treasure trove,” she said. “We try and rotate our collections every four to six weeks because we don’t have a lot of display space.”

“I think people who come here once don’t think too much about coming back,” added McLaughlin. “We have so many interesting things here, so we are always changing what we have to show off. So every time you come here, you’re going to see something new.”

Even if that “something new” is an old teddy bear.

Visitors are invited to view the exhibit of teddy bears during regular museum hours of operation, which are currently Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Admission to the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village is $5 for adults 18 and over; children and museum members are free. Visitors will find knowledgeable docents to answer questions and share island stories. There is a daily, docent-led tour of all of the historical buildings at 11 a.m. at no additional cost.

Paula Newton arranges a birthday party with dolls, teddy bears and a cake inside the Burnap Cottage.

For more information, please call 472-4648 during business hours or visit the museum’s website at www.sanibelmuseum.org.

A "Teddy Roosevelt" bear created in 2002 to mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of the first teddy bear.