These photographs taken in early and mid-20th century Germany show anonymous people posing alongside actors dressed as polar bears. The pictures, part of a TeddyBär collection, were compiled between the end of the First World War and the late 1960s by Jean-Marie Donat.
After he stumbled across a snapshot of someone dressed as a polar bear traipsing down a street in Berlin, he went on to spend 20 years hunting down photos of other bear impersonators, spanning four decades and originating from places across Germany. Now, his many found images are together in a book called TEDDYBÄR.
While the photos certainly look silly and absurd, they transmit a strange feeling. The bear’s poses vary only slightly and he has a shaggy grin.
The painful and tumultuous history of Germany unfolds around these pictures; the cheerful Nazi soldiers are replaced later with smiling American soldiers, all while the bear remains unchanged.
The origins of the bizarre tradition are a bit of a mystery, however, some sources claim that the polar bear craze started in the early 1920s when two actual polar bears arrived at the Berlin Zoo.
Families came from all over the country to see the bears and to get their pictures taken in front of the zoo with the guys in bear suits who stood outside the gates to welcome tourists. And this gave rise to a nationwide phenomenon that lasted until the late 1960s.
The first bear suits worn by humans were used in shamanic ritual practices by native peoples. In the modern-day, they are a popular choice of mascot, and both stylized and realistic bear suits are commonly used in film and on stage, due to the bear’s prominent role in the arts and entertainment.
(Photo credit: TEDDYBÄR, a series from the Jean-Marie Donat Collection, Innocences Publishing).