Established around the turn of the century by a young Brooklynite couple who sewed stuffed animals for fun, Ideal Toy Company was behind some of the most famous American toys of the 20th century, including the Teddy Bear, Rubik’s Cube, Viewmaster, and Magic 8-Ball…
From Russia to Brooklyn
Morris Michtom and Rose Katz arrived on the docks of New York a couple years apart, in 1887 and 1889. The anti-Semitic violence sweeping across the Russian Empire compelled them to leave their homeland and start a new life in a strange country. Though they arrived with no money to their names, they would soon gain something much more valuable: the two met and were married in 1889.
The entrepreneurial couple settled in Brooklyn and opened up a shop selling candy and various penny items. At night, they pursued their hobby of making stuff animals.
In addition to managing their business and hobbies, they soon began to grow their family. Their first child, Joseph, was born in 1891. Then, in 1893, they welcomed twins Amelia and Emily, though Amelia tragically died at a young age. In 1895 they had a another son, Frederic, though tragedy struck young family yet again when he died by the age of 2. Finally, in 1901, their youngest son Benjamin joined the family.
After seeing Clifford Berryman’s famous cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt and the bear cub in November of 1902, Rose Michtom was inspired to create a plush bear from a scrap of velvet. Morris put the little bear in their shop window with a sign that read “Teddy’s Bear”. To their surprise, over a dozen customers were interested in buying the bear.
Cautious about offending President “Teddy” Roosevelt, Morris requested permission from the president to use his name (which was granted). He also packed up the bear and mailed it to the White House as a gift for the president’s children. That same bear stayed in the Roosevelt family for generations and was eventually donated to the Smithsonian by Theodore’s grandchildren. By 1904, Roosevelt had adopted the bear as a mascot of his campaign, and had a Michtom Teddy bear on display at every White House function.
The Michtoms continued making the bears part-time, selling them for $1.50 a piece. Soon, as demand began to surpass supply, Morris and Rose committed to making the bears full-time. They retired the candy shop and founded Ideal Toy and Novelty Co. in 1907.*
That same year, they also began making dolls, which turned out to be an excellent business decision. Ideal’s extremely successful Betsy Wetsy and Shirley Temple dolls, both released in 1934, played and instrumental role in keeping the company afloat during the economic depression of the 1930s. During the post WWII baby boom, Ideal became the largest doll manufacturer in the United States.
An Ideal Legacy
The Michtom’s enjoyed great success from the company they built, and generously donated to many causes close to their hearts, including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish National Fund, the National Labor Campaign for Palestine. Rose passed away in 1937, and was joined by Morris less than a year later, in 1938. Rose’s nephew Abraham Katz, who had been working with Morris and Benjamin at the company, took over as chief executive. Over the following decades Ideal expanded to include a variety of products, including games and plastic toys. The company remained under family leadership until the 1970s.
Check out the digitized collection of the Strong National Museum of Play for photographs of the Michtom family here.
Sources: click here
*The bears became so popular that in 1908, Rev. Father Michael G. Esper of Michigan denounced Teddy bears as a “menace to the nation”. He warned that these cute and cuddly bears would undermine the girls’ maternal instinct and create a generation of bad mothers, because they were supplanting baby dolls as the default toy for little girls.
Written and photographed by Shauna Taylor