My Enchanté column from June 12, 2014
By Mark Bergin
He spent much of his early life in a forest before traveling hundreds of thousands of miles. He’s only got a few good friends, but has millions of fans who span several generations. The little fellow has significant connections to Canada and the United States, where he now lives in New York City with his lifelong close friends. Some consider that home, a climate-controlled case, a shrine.
Winnie-the-Pooh (Disney dropped the hyphens), a Brit, born early in the 20th century, was spawned from the minds of author Alan Alexander (A. A.) Milne and artist Ernest H. Shepard. The early drawings, oddly, were called decorations. Such a Pooh-like description.
On days when this crazy world seems unthinkably harsh, this little bear takes us to a place filled with innocence.
He dwells in an existential Nirvana called the Hundred Acre Wood, inspired by Ashdown Forest, at the edge of which the Milne family had a country home and farm. His worldview comprises innocence and the thought “I eat honey (hunny), therefore I am.”
At the toughest moments of life or just generally sad times, I turn to Pooh for comfort. I’ll dissolve the hurt within pages of innocent wonder.
Recently, I embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts to meet the real Pooh.
When the moment came and I stood in the presence of the inspiration—a ragged stuffed bear— for all those stories, I felt tears in my eyes, and my hands shook. I said, “Thank you.” During those darkest times when hope is hidden, Pooh’s endless innocence is there, a flicker of playful light in the darkness. With his existential innocence, he is present.
When I finally stood next to the real Pooh, I felt like Buddy in the movie Elf, when he learns that Santa is coming to the department store where he’s working: “Pooh, here? I KNOW him. I KNOW HIM.”
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator, entered the world on January 18, 1882. Milne became a journalist, novelist and playwright.
In 1902, during a hunting expedition, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, spared the life of a young bear. It didn’t take long for toy stuffed bears to become Teddy bears, named in honor of Roosevelt.
In 1914, in Canada, a trapper found an orphaned bear near White River, Ontario, where Canadian Pacific Trains made lengthy stopovers. There, they took on coal and water, and horses were watered and allowed to stretch and exercise. During one of those stops, Lieutenant Harry Coleburn, on his way to England, bought the orphaned bear. In those days, it was not uncommon to own a wild animal like a bear.
Coleburn, a British citizen, had lived in Toronto and Winnipeg during his teens. He named the bear Winnipeg and took her to England with him. When Coleburn and his unit were deployed to France, he left Winnipeg at the London Zoo for caretaking. After the war, the bear was officially donated to the zoo. She had become a popular attraction and Londoners nicknamed her Winnie. Young visitors were even given rides on the tame bear.
On August 12, 1920, Daphne Milne gave birth to Christopher Robin. One year later, Winnie-the-Pooh, or at least the toy bear who would be given that name, arrived, a gift to Christopher Robin for his first birthday.
That Teddy bear was first called Edward the Bear.
The young Christopher Robin later renamed him Winnie-the-Pooh.
Christopher Finch, who has written many books on popular culture, including a history of Winnie-the-Pooh, notes that Christopher Robin loved visiting the zoo in London and was even allowed to visit the tame bear in its cage. Christopher Robin named his own Teddy bear after the zoo bear, Winnie. As for the Pooh part, there are two stories. One maintains that it came from a Swan called Pooh. The other story comes from A. A. Milne.
“But his arms were so stiff…they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think–but I am not sure–that that is why he is always called Pooh.”
Finch also says that Christopher Robin’s Teddy bear was not the only source of inspiration for Shepard’s drawings. Shepard’s son, Graham, had a Teddy bear of his own, of German Steiff company origin, that helped inspire the drawings.
Other characters in the Pooh stories were also based on stuffed animals owned by Christopher Robin. Eeyore took on his rather gloomy moods from his appearance. Over time, the toy’s neck became less stiff and Eeyore took on a morose appearance with his droopy head. Piglet was a pincushion that became part of Christopher Robin’s play world. Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, Roo and Tigger were purchased by Alan and Daphne Milne for their son at Harrods toy department in London.
Winnie-the-Pooh made his debut by name on Christmas Eve 1925, in a story published in the London Evening News. That story later became the first chapter of the Winnie-the-Pooh book.
A popular game—Pooh Sticks—like most other aspects of the stories, had its origins in Christopher Robin’s life. Christopher Robin Milne played Pooh Sticks on a footbridge over a tributary near their country home. The game involves dropping twigs on one side of a bridge and seeing which one comes out first on the other side of the bridge.
Winnie-the-Pooh’s popularity is easy to understand. Devoid of pretense and, some dare say, being of little brain, the wee bear is accepting of everyone and kind toward all. He has clever ideas that at times dwarf the brilliant thoughts of great philosophers. In essence, he is an unacknowledged muse and a poet. His one fault, and who can blame him, is honey.
As for Pooh’s red shirt, he doesn’t wear it in his New York home, but Sheperd did draw Pooh with a shirt in his early sketches. When those drawings first appeared in color, the shirt was red. The earliest plush doll, created by Agnes Bush long before Disney’s influence, wore a red shirt.
It was 1947 when Pooh, along with friends Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and Tigger left their British homeland. Sadly, Christopher Robin had already lost Roo somewhere in Ashdown Forest.
After visiting New York City, the group spent ten years touring libraries and department stores in the United States. Fans traveled hundreds of miles to be in the presence of these precious reminders of childhood.
After several years, A. A. Milne agreed that the animals should stay at the offices of E. P. Dutton, Milnes’ publisher, in New York. Pooh made one trip back to England for an Ernest H. Shepard exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He flew V.I.P. class on a British Airways Concorde.
In September 1987, Dutton donated Milne’s collection of stuffed toys to the New York Public Library, where they found a permanent home. The New York Times ran a headline noting that Pooh had become a New Yorker.
A. A. Milne died in 1956. Winnie-the-Pooh lives on.
By 1960, sales of Pooh books had reached millions. In 1961, Walt Disney acquired the exclusive film rights to the Pooh stories. Some purists aren’t pleased with the Disney films. But some people like to gripe at anything. Ann Thwaite, Milne’s biographer, doesn’t agree with naysayers. She thinks Milne would have been pleased with Disney’s work.
A new character, Gopher, an animal foreign to England, but native to the United States, was added by Walt Disney.
Since Pooh’s birth, he has shown up in the strangest of places, including pop songs, books to explain Taoism (the Tao of Pooh, the Te of Pooh) and treatises examining philosophical works by the likes of Plato.
I have an embarrassingly large collection of Pooh memorabilia. From music boxes and fine china to Pooh dressed as a pilot, explorer, leprechaun and one of Santa’s elves, Pooh can do anything.
He’s my hero.
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.
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