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There is something singularly unsavoury about the secret history of toys

In November 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, better known as Teddy, went South to negotiate a boundary dispute between the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. He was there, he said, to "draw a line" between the two states.

Disputes such as this tend to brew a lethal mixture of anger and boredom, with precious little in between. Seeking diversion, the president was taken on a bear hunt.

advertisementOver a hundred years ago, the idea of a photo-opportunity was already going strong, and in those pre-Heather Mills McCartney days a picture of the president taking a pot-shot at a bear held more popular appeal than it would now.But when the president realised that his minders had found him an easy target of a little bear cub, he refused to shoot.

The next day, the Washington Star carried a cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt forgoing his kill, and below it the caption: "Drawing a line". Inspired by this cartoon, a Brooklyn toy-shop owner, Morris Michtom, cut out and stuffed his own brown bear, giving it movable arms and legs and buttons for eyes. He put the new toy in the shop window, with a sign saying "Teddy's Bear". It sold within minutes, and so did the next, and the next.

Mr Michtom then wrote to the president, asking him if he could use his name to sell the bear. These were more innocent, less frenetic times: the president sent back a handwritten letter saying that Michtom was welcome. And thus was born the Teddy Bear.

Somehow, it is hard to imagine any of today's international statesmen being asked to lend their name to a cuddly toy. A grinning Tony Bear placed in the front window of Hamley's – perhaps hand-in-hand with a Cherie Patch Doll – would probably cause children and grown-ups to take to their heels in stark horror. The same is true of a presidential toy: there would be something very creepy about a toy cot filled with a George Bush-Baby, or a My Little Pony with the chipmunky little face of Hillary Clinton.

I mention all this because this week saw the unveiling of a new toy at the London Toy Fair. Costing £250, Pleo the Camarasaurus is, its makers claim, the toy of the future, the teddy bear of the 21st century. Pleo comes with 2,000 working parts, and is covered in 35 sensors that respond to changes in light and sound.

I once had a teddy bear with working parts, or at least working part: there was a zippered opening in its back into which you were supposed to stuff your pyjamas (the moment you unstuffed him he looked very ill indeed). But in terms of things it can do, Pleo wins hands down, so much so that its makers are billing it not just as a toy but as "the world's first designer life form".

Pleo is released into toy shops in June, so that, by the end of July, children will be begging: "Oh, please, please Mummy, may I have the world's first designer life form for Christmas?"

Once unpacked, Pleo kicks off as a one-week-old camarasaurus cub, developing into first a juvenile and then an adolescent within the space of three hours. Pleo yawns, coughs, sneezes and snores. He cries when scared, stops walking when he senses danger, turns his head when he hears a noise and even flinches if his owner moves to hit him.

Eeriest of all, he responds to his upbringing: a Pleo which is knocked around and screamed at in his childhood will turn into a chippy, aggressive adolescent. "Pleo is the first truly autonomous life form capable of emotions that allow personal engagement," boasts – or perhaps warns is the better word – his inventor, Caleb Chung.

I'm sure the all-coughing, all-flinching, all-snoring, all-moody Pleo the Camarasaurus will be a huge hit: children are odd like that. To me, he sounds like a nightmare of bullishness and nosiness. When Christmas comes along, I suspect most of us would rather unpack a real-life Store Detective or CCTV Operative: however hoity-toity he became, at least you wouldn't keep feeling that it was your fault he had turned out like that.

One's natural inclination is to grumble that toys like Pleo have lost their charm and their innocence.Whatever happened, you may ask, to the Smurf, the Gonk, the Troll, GI Joe and Action Man? What became of the Cabbage Patch Doll and My Little Pony, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, the Tamagotchi, Billy Bass and Barbie?

Oddly enough, the mere recitation of these names serves to remind one quite how uninnocent – even sinister – all these toys were. Barbie was the first to arrive, on March 9, 1959, named after 15-year-old Barbara Handler (her brother was called Ken), the Mattel toy heiress, who had spotted a similar doll in a shop window in Lucerne. Five years later, GI Joe sprang from the loins of Barbie, when toy manufacturers heard from alarmed parents that little boys across America were secretly playing with Barbie, and, furthermore, that they preferred to undress her than to dress her. GI Joe's creator, Stanley Weston, felt that a butch, all-male substitute was called for and, at the 1964 US toy fair, this foot-tall infantryman took to centre-stage, complete with army fatigues, a rifle and a flame-thrower.

There is something singularly unsavoury about the secret history of toys. In many ways, they are gargoylish recreations of their makers, with a few extra peculiarities thrown in. Trolls were grotesque little creatures, less than four inches tall, which took off in America after the then First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, told an interviewer that she owned one.

By 1965, they were the second best-selling toy in the world, after Barbie. Soon you could buy them in nappies, in dresses, and in dinner jackets, with ironing boards, motorcycles and hairdryers – yet if, by chance, a group of Trolls had come to life and let themselves into an all-American home, a crack-squad from Rentokil would have been hot on the scene. Ditto Gonks, Wombles, Smurfs, Muppets, Cabbage Patch Kids, the lot – an unappealing shower of the obese, the cross-eyed, the imbecilic and the demanding.

They are all, of course, direct descendants of the good, old-fashioned, etc, etc Teddy Bear. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I'm even a bit squeamish about them: isn't there something a little too smug, too precious, too self-adoring about them? What a lot of dewy-eyed stuff and nonsense we would have been saved had President Roosevelt kept his nerve, faced his quarry like a man, and taken that pot-shot.

《Telegraph》By Craig Brown - Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 27/01/2007