Before Winnie-the-Pooh was a Disney superstar, before author A. A. Milne even considered the forest adventures of a beloved bumbling bear, he was a gift to a young boy on his first birthday. Milne purchased the soft teddy bear at Harrods department store and gave it to his son Christopher Robin on August 21, 1921. Over the years, several animals followed, including a tiger, a kangaroo, a donkey, and a tiny velveteen pig. When Milne penned Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), both beautifully illustrated by Ernest Howard Shepard, he named the bear for his son’s stuffed companion (who was in turn named for a real black bear called Winnie at the London Zoo). Each of the toys came to life within the pages, where they populated the Hundred Acre Wood, modeled on the Ashdown Forest outside the Milnes’ East Sussex home.
Since 1987, the stuffed animals have been part of the New York Public Library (NYPL). On August 3, they returned to view after a year of conservation. Resting in a tall case against an illustration of the Hundred Acre Wood, located in the Children’s Center on the ground floor of the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building, they again look much like they did under Christopher Robin’s care. Bottoms were fluffed, necks were straightened, Piglet’s snout was humidified and reattached, Eeyore’s well-worn patches were removed and replaced, and Pooh’s embroidered nose was mended.
“A great deal of love and care was bestowed on the dolls, and we’ve always been very mindful of their condition and wanting to make sure they survive indefinitely,” Michael Inman, curator of the Rare Book Division which cares for the dolls, told Hyperallergic. “We were very careful to make sure that we worked with very good, well-trained textile conservators, and the nature of the work is really that it would extend the quality of the dolls.”
The animals were sold by the Milnes to A. A.’s publisher E. P. Dutton (except poor baby Roo, who vanished in an apple orchard sometime in the 1930s), and eventually donated to NYPL. A lot of the conservation work isn’t visible to visitors, including metal supports that had long ago broken off inside and were addressed, as well as additions like nylon Maline net intended to invisibly arrest further fraying in worn areas. All of this assures that Pooh and friends don’t just look their fluffiest, but their insides are stable for a long future.
“It was a good point in time to do this given recent advances in textile conservation,” Inman added. However, NYPL and conservators with the Textile Conservation Workshop were attentive to preserve any changes done by the Milne family. “Whenever it was possible, we tried to maintain those changes that were made to the dolls, because that’s part of their history,” he said.
Pooh himself is turning 95 on August 21 of this year. The bear is accepting cards in a yellow mail box alongside the display case (you can also send a birthday greeting online). NYPL plans to exhibit the dolls at least for the near future in the Children’s Center, until they join a planned rotating exhibition of the library’s greatest treasures, of which they are most definitely a part.
Winnie-the-Pooh and his stuffed friends are on view in the Children’s Center at the New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwartzman Building, 476 Fifth Avenue, Midtown West, Manhattan).