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The sweet, sticky mystery of the bear-shaped bottle
A brief history of those iconic honey containers
Hello, Snackers. It’s what’s inside that counts, sure—but often it’s what’s outside that sells. And sometimes that means putting your honey inside a little plastic bear.
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For many years in my youth, my preferred lunch—honestly, my preferred food, period—was a peanut butter and honey sandwich. It’s a perfect, easy-to-prep meal, with layers of sweet and savory that offer just the right amount of richness.
Our honey was usually the store brand and it came in a squeeze bottle that looked like a bear. It was the only novelty container that I recall using on a regular basis, but it never registered to me as unusual or even fun, because that’s just how it always was. In my grade-school mind, I suppose the natural order of things went like this: All honey comes from bees and then it goes into plastic bottles that look like bears.
(Full marks to my friend Dianna “D” Anderson, whose own tweet brought this important matter to my attention, and whose book In Transit: Being Non-Binary in a World of Dichotomies I will take every opportunity to plug.)
Staring at that tweet, I did what I do pretty much every time I see anything related to food history: I opened up Google and started poking around, trying to figure out, hey, what’s the deal with this thing?!
There’s the usual story and then there’s the real story. I talk about this a lot because, well, this is typically how it works: the person credited with a specific food innovation is not the one who actually did it first.
If you do a quick search for the history of the bear honey bottle, you get lots and lots of versions of the same story. This one’s from Container and Packaging:
In reality, the first honey bear was designed, manufactured, and sold in 1957 by Ralph and Luella Gamber, the founders of Dutch Gold Honey. They were looking for a unique container for their honey, and came up with the now-familiar honey bear. While the bear isn't the only bottle for honey, it has become popular and widely recognized as a traditional honey container.
Here’s what that bottle looked like:
Now…I trust we can agree that this thing looks kinda creepy. It doesn’t telegraph “cuddly critter” vibes so much as “nightmare-inducing character Labyrinth.”
It turns out there’s a reason for that, as the Gambers told Associated Press reporter Jennifer Brown in 1997:
The Gambers never patented their honey bear and even worried that the Dutch Gold bear would look too much like Winnie the Pooh.
“We made it look as different as possible. We thought we’d be sued. . . . We didn’t know about franchise rights or whatever,” said Ralph Gamber.
Adorable or not, the product sold. By 1997, per that AP story, Dutch Gold was selling 2.7 million honey bears every year.
Pretty interesting so far, I thought!
But when I kept digging, there was quite a bit more.
I joked on Twitter that I’d spend all night fact-checking this origin story, but in truth it only took about five minutes on Newspapers.com to find clear evidence of earlier bear-shaped honey bottles.
This is from 1953 (note that this company also had an elephant bottle; you can find both on Ebay):
Another intrepid tweeter found the patent application, from 1952, for what is probably the true original version of the bear bottle:
This was actually one of the later ideas patented by the bottle’s designer, Edward Rachins. I checked the patent office and found out that before the bear, Rachins also had a rocket-like bottle:
Wait for it.
We really dodged disaster with that last one, no? There are plenty of things that have gone sideways in the current timeline of our existence, but I’m glad to not live in the multiverse where creepy clowns became the standard packaging for honey. My childhood would have been so haunted.
Edward Rachins, it turns out, was late to the trend.
There’s long precedent for bears as honey packaging, as May R. Berenbaum discussed in a 2016 article for American Entomologist. Berenbaum’s research showed that for centuries, honey pots were traditionally marked with bees—makes sense!—but bears’ love of the sweet stuff was well known, so they were a frequent pairing in art:
Images from a series created by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder in 1567 featuring The Fable of the Bear and the Honey-Bees were expropriated for decorating a set of 12 plates used as trenchers, or roundels, in England, complete with the moral lesson clearly visible: “The bees do feircely sting the Beare/ While he their hony Hives do tear/ So some that Pleasure seek in Haste/ With sower Sawce their Sweet do taste. … Gluttonous bears upending skeps and beset by bees appeared on painted plates, tiles, and at least one 18th-century wooden fireplace in West Yorkshire.
Berenbaum noted that, after the Teddy Bear craze of the early 1900s (which took hold in both the USA and Europe, and included the song “Teddy Bear Picnic,” written in 1907), bear-shaped vessels started to come into vogue:
As for bear-themed containers, although Hodgson Apiaries, of Jarvis, Ontario, sold creamed honey in a can decorated with a bear, the original bear-shaped container might well have been the “new, original, and ornamental Design for a Jug” described in U.S. patent D39141, issued to one Oscar Kopel of New York, New York, on 18 February 1908. In view of the fact that the patent was issued just a year after Bakelite, the first entirely synthetic plastic, was invented, Mr. Kopel probably didn't envision his bear jug rendered in plastic. Bear-shaped containers languished until mid-century, when, for reasons lost to history (or at least to me), interest was revived.
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So why did bear containers become popular again in the 1950s? Like Berenbaum, I’m not entirely sure, although it’s worth noting that interest in bears seems to be cyclical in popular culture. There was the aforementioned Teddy Bear moment of the early 1900s, when the toy took off; today, you could argue the animal’s place in the zeitgeist is a bit more sinister, given the likes of Grizzly Man, The Revenant, and Cocaine Bear.
It appears that cuddly bears were simply on-trend during the 1950s and 1960s. You can see that in, for example, Paddington, who first appeared in 1958 (with his red hat, blue jacket, and constant quest for a marmalade-fueled buzz) and Yogi Bear, who debuted the same year. Corduroy came along in 1968. We don’t know with any certainty, but it’s possible Rachins was simply tapping into that trend with his patent application (or maybe, as with the clown, it was just an idea that popped into his mind).
And then there was Winnie the Pooh. A. A. Milne’s beloved honey-scarfing creation first appeared in storybook form in 1928 but truly hit the big time with his Disney film debut in 1966. But there was also a bump in publicity when Milne died in 1956, and this is what Ralph and Luella Gamber credited for inspiring their bear bottle. Their packaging, recall, was specifically not Winnie the Pooh—they made sure of that—but, well, it also kinda was. They knew it would be popular because the character was popular.
Their design may have been creepy, but it tapped into a broader cultural fondness—and, as it happened, a long history of art that brought bears and bees together.