Collecting Winnie the Pooh

08 November 2022
We visit the origins of the famous bear and examine the options for collectors
Collecting Winnie the Pooh Images

Winnie the Pooh is a global superstar. There can be little doubt that he is the world’s most famous teddy bear and it’s more than likely that he is also its favourite. Adored by earlier generations thanks to A.A. Milne’s timeless, gentle humour and E.H. Shepard’s simple but evocative illustrations, the bear of little brain went on to win legions of new admirers the moment Disney started producing animated Winnie the Pooh features back in the 1960s. Today, his iconic status has made him a positive merchandising goldmine and his happy face can be found adorning everything from t-shirts to toothbrushes. As a result, the scope for collectors is phenomenal with something to suit every budget.

In which we learn about Pooh

The inspiration for the fictional Winnie the Pooh was a teddy bear bought from Harrods in 1921. The bear, which was made by the famous British soft toy manufacturer, J.K. Farnell & Co. Ltd., was purchased as a first birthday gift for Christopher Robin, only child of popular playwright Alan Alexander Milne and his wife, Daphne. The bear quickly became the young boy’s constant companion but it took time before a suitable name was found for him; in the early days he was variously referred to as ‘Bear’, ‘Teddy’ or ‘Edward Bear’. It was not until 1924 or 1925 that he acquired the unusual name by which he was to become world famous. The ‘Winnie’ part came from Winnipeg, the name of a black bear that Christopher Robin was privileged to meet at London Zoo. The bear had been brought to England at the start of World War I as the unofficial mascot of the Fort Garry Horse, a Canadian cavalry regiment. When the regiment embarked for France in 1915, its vet, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, left Winnipeg at London Zoo where she became a popular attraction. Through influential friends, the Milnes were able to arrange for their small son to have a closer encounter with Winnie than was generally available for less well connected individuals. According to contemporary reports, the small boy was initially uneasy when he came into close proximity with the bear but he overcame his nerves and stepped forward to stroke her. After that, he decided that Winnie was a fine animal and her name was duly appropriated for his toy bear.

While it seems perfectly rational to name a teddy in honour of a real bear, the second part of the name of Christopher Robin’s famous bruin is less easily accounted for. Legend has it that the name ‘Pooh’ had originally been given by Christopher Robin to a swan he used to watch in Arundel, Sussex. For some reason – and children usually have their own immutable logic for these things – the swan’s nickname was taken and bestowed as a second name on his bear, with the definite article separating Winnie and Pooh, perhaps because its addition imparted a sense of grandeur. Usually, however, the bear was referred to simply as Pooh. (At the time the word ‘pooh’ did not have any unpleasant connotations; when used it was usually to denote nonchalance or bravado as in, “Pooh! That doesn’t bother me one bit!”)

A fond father, A.A. Milne was enchanted by his son’s early childhood and decided to immortalise it in a collection of poems, published first by Punch magazine early in 1924 and reproduced later that year in a volume entitled When We Were Very Young. One of these poems, Teddy Bear, tells the story of a somewhat rotund teddy who eventually comes to terms with his size. The bear in the poem’s illustration by E.H. Shepard is very similar to the one the artist later drew in the Winnie-the-Pooh books, although there is no actual mention of Winnie the Pooh in the poem. Rather surprisingly, Shepard’s model when drawing Pooh was not Christopher Robin’s teddy but one called Growler which belonged to his own son, Graham. Graham Shepard was thirteen years older than Christopher Robin Milne and his bear was therefore an earlier design, in appearance quite unlike the Farnell bear of 1921. There is some conjecture that Growler was a Steiff bear but as he was destroyed by a dog in 1940, we shall probably never know for certain.

Fortunately, the original, Farnell-made Winnie the Pooh is still very much in existence and can be viewed free of charge, together with most of the other toys immortalised by A.A. Milne, at the Children’s Library within the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd & 5th Avenue. Since the 1980s the toys had been on display in the Donnell Library Center in New York City but they moved to their new location early in 2009. It was Milne himself who decreed that Pooh and several of the other toys should go to the USA. He allowed his American agent to take them on a tour of the country and when they received a rapturous welcome, he decided they should remain there. (Christopher Milne was apparently indifferent to the fate of his famous toys).

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The success of Milne’s When We Were Very Young was followed up in 1926 by the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh which like its predecessor received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic as, indeed, did its follow-up, The House at Pooh Corner, and a second volume of verses, Now We Are Six. The charming, whimsical antics of Pooh and his chums had touched the hearts of millions, and continue to do so today which is why there is such an abundance of collecting opportunities.

In which Pooh collectables are discussed

There are so many Pooh-related collectables available, both on the retail and the secondary market that anyone intent on starting a collection might find it helpful to concentrate on a particular area. For example, a collection that focused only on Winnie the Pooh soft toys would have great cohesion and would still leave the collector with an enormous amount of choice. So much choice, in fact, that the collection could be separated into two distinct sub-categories, modern and vintage. Over the years, many manufacturers have had a go at making versions of Winnie the Pooh in a wide range of sizes. Names to look for include Merrythought, Gund, Teddy Hermann, Steiff and Gabrielle Designs. Active from the 1970s to the 1990s, Gabrielle Designs are best known for making Paddington Bear toys but they also made charming versions of Pooh which are less frequently encountered on the secondary market.

A very large soft toy collection could also be built by concentrating solely on the Disney organisation’s own brand Winnie the Pooh toys. Offered in a dizzying range of sizes and disguises, there is enough scope in that one category alone to keep a collector busy for years. Apart from the Disney Store offerings, there are varieties made especially for sale in the Disney theme parks across the globe, as well as those created, usually in quite small editions, for the annual Disney Conventions. Since they are mass-produced, many of these plush Pooh toys can be bought brand new for around £20 although the bigger items will cost more. If, on the other hand, you prefer to look for them on the secondary market, boot sales and internet sites are the best hunting grounds, with charity shops coming a close second. At boot sales in particular, this type of toy can be purchased for as little as ten or twenty pence. Although this represents a huge saving on the retail price, the downside (there is always a downside) is that condition may not be that great if the item has been played with so check carefully before buying. Also, if you are collecting with even a vague notion of making money at some point in the future, you are better off concentrating on examples produced by the likes of Merrythought, Gabrielle and Steiff since mass-produced Disney toys are unlikely to see a significant increase in value.

If a shelf full of plush toys does not appeal, there are many other options open to the would-be Winnie the Pooh collector. Figurines, for example, are widely available and as they are small, take up much less space than bulky soft toys. Prices for china and resin figurines will depend both on the manufacturer and on the person selling them. You could consider buying from a dealer that specialises in character merchandise. There are plenty of these around and the advantage of purchasing from them is that because they are specialists, they always have a good and varied stock, and they also have expert knowledge which can be invaluable to a novice collector. The disadvantage is that there is less chance of getting bargains from specialist dealers as they know the going rate for their stock, although if you want something they have and the going rate for it happens to be within your budget, this isn’t really a problem. Brand names to look out for include Royal Doulton, Beswick and Border Fine Arts. One of the best known Pooh figurines is the one issued by Beswick between 1968 and 1990. Modelled by Albert Hallam, it measures about 2.5 inches high and shows a smiling Pooh wearing a red top which doesn’t quite reach over his fat little tum. Prices for this piece vary enormously but specialist dealers charge from £35 to £50 (occasionally more) for examples in mint condition.

Books represent another rich collecting opportunity for Winnie the Pooh fans, since the portly ursine hero has appeared in dozens of different permutations of the original four books in which he features: When We Were Very Young, Winnie the Pooh, House at Pooh Corner and Now We Are Six. The dream for every real Pooh enthusiast must be to own a first edition copy of Winnie The Pooh but deep pockets may be needed to make the dream a reality since examples in good condition and with their original dust jackets can sell for between £1,000 and £1,500, although with diligent searching, bargains may be found. The same applies to first editions of The House at Pooh Corner which tend to cost less than Winnie the Pooh but still require a significant outlay of cash. First editions aside, however, early editions are surprisingly affordable, probably because the books have been reprinted in such vast quantities over the years. A 1931 third edition volume of The Christopher Robin Story Book, for example, which contains selected items from all four books and is decorated with many of E.H. Shepard’s enchanting illustrations of Pooh, sold recently on an internet site for just £3 plus postage and packing. Another way to enjoy the Pooh books is to track down The Complete Winnie the Pooh which was published by the Folio Society in 2004. This handsome set is housed in a protective slipcase and includes three volumes – Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner and The Complete Poems for Christopher Robin – all featuring E.H. Shepard’s original illustrations. It is no longer available from the Folio Society but can be tracked down on the secondary market at a cost of around £100.

Once you start looking, charming Winnie the Pooh collectables can be found all over the place. From E.H. Shepard prints to adorn your walls to perpetual calendars to help you keep track of time, there are countless ways in which the bear of little brain can brighten your home. In fact, with so much choice available, the main problem will be knowing when to stop!