ST. JOSEPH — A St. Joseph priest denounces the latest fad, calling it a “horrible monstrosity” that is threatening youth, motherhood and America.

The controversy goes viral and spreads around the country, reaching all the way to the president of the United States.

What was this perceived menace to society? Comic books? Rock ’n’ roll? Video games?

No. The teddy bear.

“No more disgusting sight has ever come to my eyes than is presented by the spectacle of a little girl fondling, caressing, and even kissing these pseudo animals,” Father Michael G. Esper, of St. Joseph Catholic Church, said in a sermon in 1907 as the new toys were gaining popularity. “It is a shame upon the American people that it will suffer the development of the instinct of motherhood in its future women to be arrested for a fad for these bundles of horridness, the most harmful and repulsive nature fakes ever perpetrated.”

This “Battle of the Bears” was the subject of a recent history podcast called Pessimist’s Archive, hosted by Jason Feifer, the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine. The episodes explore innovations or technology that are commonplace today – from mirrors to margarine to vaccinations – and why people were resistant to them at the time they were introduced.

Numerous other articles, along with contemporary accounts from all over the country, confirm the fact that, for a while, St. Joseph, Mich., became the epicenter of a heated debate that extended far beyond the appropriateness of a toy for children, and touched on sensitive issues of race.

Feifer said it is one of the more bizarre examples of resistance to a new invention that he has come across.

“It’s the most innocent thing in the world,” he said. “You can’t imagine someone getting upset over this.”

Feifer discusses the origins of the teddy bear, mythologized through their connection to president and big game hunter Teddy Roosevelt. The story was spread that Roosevelt spared a bear that had been tied up for him to blast, and an editorial cartoon showed a cub that spawned the name “teddy bear.”

Feifer further digs into the social circumstances of the times, when the changing roles of women, and the rising prominence of minorities, were creating anxiety in some circles.

More women were achieving higher levels of education at the turn of the 20th century, the historian points out. Educated women were also having fewer children. Some observers suggested that studying stunted a woman’s fertility, never considering, Feifer comments, that they were simply choosing what to do with their own bodies.

Concerns about the growing number of immigrants flowing into the country raised alarms in certain quarters, as well.

Oh, bother

Up steps Father Michael G. Esper, who served as priest for the St. Joseph parish from 1902 to 1917. He was frightened that little girls were putting away their dolls in favor of this insidious imposter. His comments came as he asked for support for a doll social being planned by the women of the church.

“The very instincts of motherhood in a growing girl are blunted and oftentimes destroyed if the child is allowed to lavish upon an unnatural toy of this character the loving care which is so beautiful when bestowed upon a doll representing a helpless infant,” Esper is reported to have declared, in a newspaper article from July 8, 1907.

The spiritual leader gave voice to his darker misgivings before his parishioners.

“Race suicide, the gravest danger which confronts this nation today, is being fostered and encouraged by the fad for supplanting the good old dolls of our childhood with the horrible monstrosity known as the ‘Teddy Bear,’” Esper stated.

“Race suicide” was the belief that a decreasing birth rate among whites, along with a supposed spike in births among non-whites, would lead to the eventual destruction of white civilization. The idea had its prominent supporters. In 1902 President Roosevelt stated that race suicide was “fundamentally infinitely more important than any other question in this country.”

Father Esper’s sermon struck a raw nerve hibernating in the national consciousness.

“Teddy Bear is a Menace to the Nation,” the headline of a Detroit Free Press article blared. “Michigan minister says monstrosity distorts motherhood instincts.”

A headline in the Salt Lake Tribune trumpeted “Teddy Bear Dooms Race.” Some schools banned teddy bears.

The Reno (Nev.) Evening Gazette ran a long article asking various opinion makers, and everyday people, what they thought about the questions raised by Esper’s sermon, under the tongue-in-cheek headline “Teddy Bears Rule Supreme and Drive the Dolls Away.”

It was accompanied by an editorial cartoon panel that ridiculed the controversy, portraying a large bear raising a cudgel to clobber other defenseless toys, with the label “Invasion of the Nursery.”

Nearly everyone interviewed laughed at Father Esper’s notion that the bears were the harbinger of “race suicide,” the Gazette found. But Father Tubman of the Reno Catholic Church sided with his fellow cleric that the toy would “destroy the maternal instinct.”

Roosevelt responds

The question finally reached the ostensible namesake of the toy and proponent of racial purity.

As reported by The News-Palladium, on July 9, 1907, “an effort was made this morning to get President Roosevelt to express his opinion of Rev. M.G. Esper’s sermon attacking the teddy bear fad and warning against it as a factor in the race suicide danger.”

Roosevelt was contacted at his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., “but he only laughed when he was asked to comment on the priest’s remarks. He said he had read Father Esper’s remarks “with interest but he had nothing to say for or against” his namesake.

In the same article, Father Esper expressed surprise at the fur flying over his sermon. But he stuck by his guns.

“I never thought my remarks would cause such widespread discussion,” Esper said. “Although I hear that many people differ with me on the matter, it has not caused me to change my opinion in the least. I did not make my remarks without careful thought and attention.”

Father Esper remained in St. Joseph until 1917, when he was transferred to a church in Detroit, where he had two brothers who also were priests. During his tenure in St. Joseph, he made improvements in the church building and rectory, and led the construction of a $28,000 school building which gave the city its first large auditorium. He also made badly needed improvements to the Cemetery of the Resurrection, turning it “into a beauty spot,” according to The News-Palladium.

The concepts of race suicide and racial purity were later largely condemned, but were adopted by Adolf Hitler as part of his Final Solution.

Echoes of these arguments can be heard today in speeches about immigrants and other non-whites.

“It never really went away,” along with problems of sexism, Feifer said, acknowledging that progress has been made.

As for those beleaguered bruins?

“The teddy bears won,” one historian told Feifer.

The podcast on the teddy bear controversy is at https://link.chtbl.com/pa-bears.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak