Arctophile. n. Someone who has a fondness for teddy bears, usually a collector.
If you didn’t know the meaning of the word, you’re not alone. For most of his life, Jack Wilson, now a self-described arctophile, didn’t know the word. Sure, he owned teddy bears as a child, although he doesn’t remember much about them. As an arctophile, Wilson appreciates the unique power of the teddy bear — its ability to bring comfort to a child or elderly adult.
“I don’t know why it is,” Wilson said. “A teddy bear has a reputation of being therapeutic.”
The retired chairman of House of Nisbet, a company that produced collectible dolls and teddy bears,
Wilson will be the keynote speaker at “Teddy Bear Jubilee” Oct. 1 through Oct. 3, in Kansas City, Mo., an event for Good Bears of the World, which is a 40-year-old charity that provides teddy bears to traumatized children and elderly adults.
The organization promotes Wilson as a “local international arctophile out of hibearnation.” His presentation is titled “My Memories of Milestones and Old Friends” and will focus on bona-fide arctophiles Peter Bull, a British character actor who wrote “The Teddy Bear Book,” and Jack Ownby, founder of Good Bears of the World, both of whom were friends and business associates of Wilson.
But Wilson doesn’t just appreciate teddy bears for their ability to comfort. He finds that there are some interesting stories behind the bears and their owners.
Wilson, a Toronto native, has worked in graphics and for the Transit Authority in Toronto. Eager to have his own business, he bought House of Nisbet from his wife’s family in 1975. At the time, the company produced 8-inch collectible dolls of famous people, mostly the British royal family and historical figures, because, unlike musicians and movie stars, they didn’t require licensing fees. Wilson soon found that trade customers who bought the dolls also tended to buy collectible teddy bears. So, in 1976, Wilson’s wife, Alison, designed the company’s first teddy bears.
In the decade the company spent producing teddy bears, it became best known for its Bully Bears, which were named for Peter Bull. Those bears solidified House of Nisbet’s role as a major player in the teddy-bear industry. Although Bull played smaller roles in films, he was a celebrity in the teddy-bear community. He always carried a small teddy bear named Theodore in his pocket. The Bully Bears had to have long arms and a distinctive hump on their backs. They also had to be “good listeners.”
The teddy-bear business came with its perks. Wilson met Princess Diana in 1983, at a luncheon at FAO Schwarz, in Manhattan, N.Y.
“I like your teddy bears,” she told him before turning around to wave at the crowd that had gathered in Times Square.
Wilson has spoken at teddy-bear rallies, where teddy-bear enthusiasts brought their bears to compete in contests such as Best Dressed Bear.
A prominent teddy-bear collector sent Wilson to bid on the world’s most expensive teddy bear at a Sotheby’s auction. Final price: $90,000.
Wilson sold House of Nisbet to Dakin, a company known for its Garfield stuffed animals, in 1989. He says it was a good time to sell the company, because the collectables business was on the decline. Within two years, Dakin closed House of Nisbet.
Today, Wilson says teddy bears are his past life — for the most part. He and Alison retired to Sarasota, then moved to Ellenton, and after years of visiting Casa del Mar, decided to settle on Longboat Key. Wilson isn’t completely retired; he still works as an accountant and comptroller for Young Pharmacies LLC.
At his Gulf Shore home, Wilson has 10 teddy bears. He says he’s not a collector — he has met collectors with as many as 400 teddy bears. But, although arctophiles are often collectors, Wilson says the two aren’t interchangeable.
“The motivations of an arctophile are different,” Wilson said.
Collectors usually seek to amass value. Not so for arctophiles.
“We’re into admiring the bear for what it can do for society,” he said. “It’s a good, wholesome furthing, a teddy bear.”
Bear it all
Here’s a look at a few of Jack Wilson’s favorite teddy bears.
Jack’s Bear is named for Wilson because he made the bear using alpaca fur based on a survey about teddy-bear attributes people wanted in the perfect bear.
"How many people have a teddy bear named after them?" Wilson asks.
Sotheby’s replica bear
The gray bear is a replica of the Steiff bear that sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $90,000. It was a prototype model that never went into production.
"It was a very, very attractive teddy bear,” Wilson said. “I just wanted a replica of it."
of the World bear
Wilson has a small, brown teddy bear made by Good Bears of the World to give to children in hospitals and nursing-home patients. The bears cost approximately $8 to provide.