When I was a child, I loved paging through the family photo albums. Old black and white photos of family from years ago fascinated me. Imagine, my mother had braids! My father in a a baby carriage. But the one photo that drew me, more than any other, was the photo of my mother with a POLAR BEAR! The look on her face is both excited and a bit embarrassed… as if someone told her to pose, but like all tweens, she didn’t want to let anyone see she was enjoying it. I always thought this photo was a one-of-a-kind… maybe from a party or carnival… but it turns out, taking a photo with a person in a Polar Bear suit was an actual THING in Germany from the 1920s to the 1960s! There are hundreds of these Polar Bear photos out there!
The Unusual German Trend of Having a photo with a Man in a Polar Bear Suit
No one knows the exact reason for the spread, but it seems the trend began in Berlin. In the 1920s, a pear of Polar Bears was sent to live at the Berlin Zoo. To get people excited about the exhibit (and to make a little extra money) the Zoo dressed a man in a Polar Bear suit, and posed him for photos with the visitors. These souvenirs were treasured in a time when people weren’t carrying around their own camera… (For you youngsters… there was a time BEFORE selfies with a phone!).
But the photos weren’t just taken at the zoo… and the photo shoots went well beyond the 1920s.
Another theory (and this one seems like a reach to me) is that the Polar Bear outfits came out of a Fanta advertising campaign. Fanta was created as a replacement soda when World War 2 created Coca Cola syrup shortages in Germany. (Fanta, made from apple fiber and other fruit syrups kept the German Coca Cola factories in operation). Coca Cola first used a Polar Bear in advertising back in the 1922, and since Fanta wanted connect their drink to Coke, they asked the Steiff company to make a polar bear costume. The bear would pose with regular people doing regular things, as a reminder of what normal was after wartime. Basically, they projected a “Fanta” -sy of what life should be.
All Those Polar Bear Photos!
What makes these photos especially interesting, is that there were no set patterns. Polar Bear photos were taken with people in swimsuits on the beach, with top-hat wearing gentlemen at parties, with soldiers, and with children. It was a trend that crossed all generations, and all classes.
Since the photos are mostly close up and black and white, it’s difficult to tell exactly where they were taken, but there are some clues. Most seem to have been taken in holiday or Kur resorts. In Rügen, Carl Bitterling set up a photography studio specifically to take polar bear photos with vacationers, and charged 3-5 Marks per photo! A lot of money at the time, especially for notoriously frugal Germans.
A Collection of Polar Bear Photos
In the 1980s, Frenchman Jean-Marie Donat came across a photo of a person posing with a man in a polar bear costume while looking through a German friend’s photo album. He was fascinated. And then he found another… Over 30 years, he found over 300 of these photos taken all over Germany. (He counted approximately 30 different Polar Bear Costumes in his collection of photos) Eventually, he put together an art exhibit at Les Rencontres de la Photographie at Arles 2015, and an accompanying photo essay book called “Teddybär”, which was published by the Innocences.net. It really is an interesting and quite unexpected slice of German history. Sadly the book was a limited edition, and it quickly sold out–> http://www.innocences.net/product/teddybar (I wonder if my mom is in it!)
It still doesn’t really Answer the Question -WHY was this a trend that stuck around for almost 50 years?
It seems that once Germans pick up a trend, they have a hard time putting it down! And Germans have always loved an Eisbär (Knut the Berlin Polar Bear was an instant celebrity… and the recent birth and death of the polar bear cubs at the zoo were International news). The trend of having a photo taken with a Polar Bear survived depression and war, and even reconstruction, but it finally died out in the mid-1960s (the last dated photo was from Oktoberfest in 1962). The most obvious cause… people had their own cameras, and no longer needed to pay for a souvenir photo to remember their vacation.
Why did the trend last so long? It’s a mystery. And maybe it’s better that way. Not everything needs an explanation. Personally, I think it’s a true reflection of Germans. So proper on the outside, but with enough silliness in them to pose with a polar bear. The image speaks volumes!
Germans do Love their Eisbären
Wouldn’t you like one for your home?