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My Pandas

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A Brief History of Toy Pandas

Merrythought PandaAlthough teddy bears have been around for more than 100 years, toy pandas didn’t appear until 1936, when inexpensive souvenir bears went on sale at Brookfield Zoo to celebrate the arrival of Su Lin, the west’s first giant panda. Such was the prestige attached to being the first company to produce a panda in this country that, when Fondle advertised in Games and Toys that they had been the only one exhibiting a panda bear at the 1938 British Industries Fair, the trade journal was forced to issue an apology the following month after Merrythought pointed out that they had actually marketed a range of panda toys in the spring of 1937!

In 1938, Steiff, always quick to spot a marketing opportunity, launched a black and white jointed panda bear and, the following year, keen to take advantage of the ‘panda fever’ that gripped the UK following Ming’s arrival on Christmas Eve 1938, nearly every British soft toy manufacturer exhibiting at the Spring British Industries Trade Fair showed a giant panda. Small black and white bears were popular as fillings for children’s Easter eggs and adults weren’t forgotten either with one company producing brooches, enamel and gold panda charms and a diamond encrusted version which all came in white kid eggs. Other popular panda products produced to please Britain’s purchasing public included handbags, hot water bottle covers, jigsaws, nightdress cases, nursery ware, postcards, doll’s tea sets, true to scale figures and tea cosies.

Competition for the accolade of producing the most realistic looking toys was fierce, with three of the main toy companies claiming that their pandas most closely resembled the real thing. Dean’s, for example, pandered to the British people’s prevailing passion for pandas with Handy Pandy, describing their creation as Ming’s ‘constant companion and playmate’ after he was photographed with the baby panda to show that he was ‘a life-like and faithful reproduction of the living model’. (However, despite their claims, more than sixty years later, Dean’s actually acknowledged that Handy Pandy had really just been a black and white teddy bear, and it wasn’t until 1982, after an intensive study of the pandas at London Zoo, that several realistic plush bears were added to their Tru-to-Life range.) Not to be outdone, when Merrythought received a commission to make Ming’s stand-in for a film being made about zoo life, they boasted that their pandas were ‘approved and sold by the London Zoo’. Pedigree believed that their pandas were the most lifelike stating: ‘Thousands of people visited the Zoo recently to see the Giant Panda. Children all over the country will want one of these realistic toys for a pet.’ Unfortunately, the outbreak of war in September 1939, meant that raw materials were soon in short supply and, as a result, factories were forced to concentrate on the war effort at the expense of toys like cuddly pandas.