Collecting Panda Bears

Ferne  & Jessica with Pandas

Found only in the forests of west-central China and living almost exclusively on bamboo, giant pandas are among the world's rarest mammals. Though originally thought related to raccoons
, they are now generally classified with bears. It's understood that there are less than 1,000 giant pandas still to be found in the wild with another 100 living in zoos.

They were unknown to Europeans until 1869 when a Jesuit missionary, Armand David, shipped a panda skin to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Live pandas were viewed for the first time by members of a European expedition party in 1913-15. In 1936, an infant giant panda named Su-Lin along with Mei-Mei were given to the US as a special gift by the Chinese government. They were the
first pandas ever to be seen in the west and proved hugely popular with visitors to Brookfield Zoo near Chicago although Su-Lin sadly died in 1938. The following year, a baby panda, Ming, along with two older pandas, Sung and Tang, went on display at London Zoo, inspiring something of a race among British manufacturers to be first on the market with panda-related products.

Collecting Panda Bears

Merrythought was one of the first British manufacturers to produce a toy panda with 'Panda Bear' and 'Panda Teddy Bear' appearing in its 1937 catalogue, one on all fours and the other more of a teddy bear shape. With the arrival of the baby panda Ming in 1939, the firm produced a life-size showpiece panda. Again standing on all fours and measuring 21" at the shoulders    and 32" long, this panda was used as a stand-in for Ming while films on the pandas were being made. The company's advertisement claimed that the model was 'so natural looking that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from the live Panda'. Such was the popularity of pandas that Merry
thought quickly extended its range of panda toys to include little 'Mascot Panda Teddies', the sitting 'Chummy Panda'and an unjointed 'Cuddly Panda Doll' displayed in a special catalogue.

Collecting Panda Bears

Other manufacturers had a similarly swift response to the panda craze. Deans produced a teddy-like panda called Handy Pandy who was photographed alongside Ming, his real- life inspiration. At the beginning of 1938, Steiff registered a design for a 12" Panda Bear. The next year, an 18" version came along together with a small panda on all fours. By the summer of 1939, most soft toy manufacturers had a panda in their ranges including Chad Valley with its 25 different product lines and Farnell, which produced a panda glove puppet, as well as Pedigree, Chiltern, the East London Toy Company and  Burman.

Though many were still teddy-like in design, a number were realistic representations with careful attention paid to the distribution and shape of the markings. Such was the panda craze of the late 1930s that many of the toys are still available and in good condition. Moreover, they are generally more affordable than teddy bears of a similar vintage and condition, with lovely mohair examples usually costing between $150-£100 and $450-£300, complete with manufacturer's label.  

  In 1948, following the Second World War, Steiff re-introduced the panda with a distinctive open-mouthed fully-jointed mohair teddy panda appearing in the 1950s along with a realistic smaller panda on all-fours and a mohair Floppy Panda. (This 'Fifties teddy panda was produced as a limited edition replica during the mid-1990s.) Virtually all the Steiff pandas dating from the 1970s onwards were cuddly and teddy-like although some wonderful realistic big 'Super Molly' examples were introduced in the mid-1980s.

Collecting Panda Bears

During the 1950s, Schuco also had a number of pandas in its Yes/No range such as Tricky and hugely appealing 3" fully-jointed miniature pandas which were made up until the early '70s. These can still be found quite easily and cost upwards of $150-£100. Teddy- Hermann produced a range of open-mouthed pandas very similar to the Steiff versions in 1956 as well as a mohair mini-panda during the 1960s.

Although German manufacturers continued to use mohair for their pandas until the early '60s, British and US firms began to use synthetic fabrics including art-silk and nylon plush. The American company, Gund, started to bring out pandas in synthetic fibres during the late 1940s and, by the early '60s these were available in a vast range of sizes including a huge 36" stumpy-legged plush model. Synthetic pandas from the late 1950s and early '60s can often be picked up for as little as $30-£20 each.

Collecting Panda Bears

Most toy manufacturers have continued to include pandas in their ranges since the end of the Second World War. At least one has appeared in Merrythought's catalogue almost every year since 1947. The vast majority of manufactured pandas are produced for children rather than the collectors' market although there are some notable exceptions.


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