Here’s my new example of why this research is such fun: You discover a silly editorial about the “teddy bear fad,” and a few moments later, your jaw drops while learning that Hitler was a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt.

The 1907 Press Democrat editorial was a reaction to the absurd idea that little girls had to play with dolls that looked like people or they would lose all desire for motherhood. Such was the claim of a Michigan priest that had appeared in scores of newspapers nationwide as a July 8 AP wire item :

A dispatch to the tribune from St. Joseph, Mich., says:

The “Teddy Bear” fad was denounced by the Rev. Michael G. Esper from the pulpit of St. Joseph’s Catholic church yesterday.

The priest held that the toy beast in the hands of little girls was destroying all instincts of motherhood and that in the future it would be realized as one of the most powerful factors in the race suicide danger.

Father Esper asked all parents to replace the doll in the affections of children and discard the “Teddy Bear” forever.

PD editor Ernest L. Finley ridiculed the notion, but the story was often printed without commentary on the front pages (my favorite headline was from the Salt Lake Tribune: “Teddy Bear Dooms Race”). In newspapers with a strong Catholic identity, the item was expanded to explain the importance of preventing “race suicide.”

As it turns out, preventing “race suicide” was quite a favorite cause of Teddy Roosevelt, whose hunting adventures had inspired the creation of the “Teddy Bear” five years before. That a toy named after the president was now being accused of causing “race suicide” is one of those bizarreries of White House history, such as John Wilkes Booth being in the VIP section directly behind Lincoln during his second inauguration (Booth scored a ticket because he was engaged to a Senator’s daughter).

(RIGHT: A search for “race suicide postcard” on eBay or the collectible postcard web sites will turn up many examples c. 1905-1910. Most common were humorous cartoons with baby-delivering storks, but also found frequently are postcards with racist themes, such as the one shown at center. After Esper’s anti-teddy bear appeal, a new wave of “race suicide” postcards depicted little caucasian girls cuddling dolls. The bottom postcard was the exception that seemed to poke fun at the priest’s alarm. CLICK any image to enlarge)

Roosevelt’s interest in the topic began in the early 1890s, and let’s be clear that the primary “race” in Teddy’s concerns wasn’t a race at all, but “old-stock” white Americans, particularly those with ancestors from New England. Roosevelt thought the declining birthrates of that group was threatened by the higher birthrates found among the immigrants whom he called “inferior races.” By 1898, his views had become even more radicalized, writing that “evil forces” were causing “the diminishing birthrate among the old native American stock,” and any who chose to not to have children were “race criminals.”

Roosevelt’s solution was that Americans should “Work-fight-breed,” a message that melded into his overall promotion of a healthy “strenuous life.” But his glorification of motherhood cloaked uglier underlying views of women as breeders, and that eugenics was a good thing if it ensured “the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding.”

While this all sounds rather Nazi-ish, it must be emphasized that Roosevelt never suggested that “old Colonial stock” Americans were a kind of √úbermensch. Speaking at Oxford in 1910, he noted that he was an eighth-generation American with ancestors from many different “European races.” It was the “common heirship in the things of the spirit,” he said, that “makes a closer bond than common heirship in the things of the body.” He made that same point in other speeches, defining Americans as those who fully assimilated and embraced Uncle Sam’s culture and customs, not just those who had Plymouth Rock bloodlines. In other words, he was expressing a fundamental view of American exceptionalism.

At the same time, there’s no way to reconcile Theodore Roosevelt’s contradictory views on racial issues that swing wildly between extremes.

Good-Teddy encouraged France, Germany, and England to take interest in “race suicide” birthrates in their countries, further showing that he didn’t believe in a particular flavor of racial superiority; that’s offset by Awful-Teddy denouncing the people in southern Italy as the “most fecund and the least desirable” race in all of Europe. While Good-Teddy vigorously opposed discrimination against African Americans, Awful-Teddy called genocide against the Indians “as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable,” and said that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”


And now they say the “Teddy bear” craze is a bad thing, because the fuzzy little animals have largely displaced the dollies of our fathers–or mothers, rather–and while the fondling of dolls tended to develop the maternal instinct, play with “Teddy bears” awakens no such sentiment and consequently tends to produce race suicide.

What nonsense!

The “Teddy bear” is only a fad, and is said to be already fast losing its popularity. But if current reports are to be relied upon, Santa Claus is laying in a larger stock of dolls for the coming Christmas than ever before.

– Press Democrat editorial , August 30, 1907

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *