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June 1, 2012

Historical Echoes: The Symbolism of the Bull and the Bear

Amy Farber, New York Fed Research Library

The Bull and the Bear, respectively, are long-standing symbols of optimism and pessimism about the outlook for the stock market. How did this come about?

The Museum of American Finance covers competing theories in a short video and essay on its blog entitled “Taking Stock of History: The Bull and Bear Statue.” The video presents former New York Stock Exchange trader Arthur Cashin, who suggests that the symbolism originated on the floor of the London Stock Exchange at the time of the Crimean War, which pitted Britain, personified in political cartoons as “John Bull,” against Russia, often represented as a bear. A museum intern offers an alternative explanation based on the fighting styles of the two animals and their parallels to market behavior. The essay introducing the video features a third possibility—that the symbolism is an allusion to fur trading. The text explains:

The term “bear” dates back to 1709, when it was used as shorthand for the bearskin jobber occupation. The title “bearskin jobber” originates from a proverb highlighting the practice of selling bearskins before catching the bear. In a more modern sense, a bear is someone who expects prices to fall, thus selling stocks in hopes of a future compensation.

That takes care of the bear, but what about the bull? According to the “Your Questions Answered” section of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance in December 1962 (at page 18), the bull symbol developed after the symbol of the bear and in relation to it: “It probably was adopted as an opposite for ‘bear’ from the old English sports of bear baiting and bull baiting.”

The bull and bear as visual symbols may have entered the public consciousness with Thomas Nast’s cartoon in Harper’s Weekly after the crash of 1869 in which dead bulls and a bear (and for some reason a fox and other cute animals) are shown in a heap in front of a roped-off Wall Street with a sign reading “This ‘Street’ is closed for repairs” and a caption stating “What a fall was there, my countrymen!”

A lesser-known artist, William Holbrook Beard, painted “The Bulls and Bears in the Market” (1879), a chaotic image of bulls and anthropomorphized bears tossing and goring each other in front of the New York Stock Exchange, that may actually be better known today than the Harper’s drawing. The New-York Historical Society provides some more background about the bull and bear symbolism at this same link and suggests that the Beard painting may have been inspired by the stock market crash of 1873.

An 1883 a board game called “Bulls and Bears: The Great Wall Street Game” is part of the Historical Society’s collection. Other web sites have attributed the imagery in this game to the work of Thomas Nast, but the Historical Society indicates the imagery is based on cartoons by Joseph Keppler and Frederick Burr Opper.

The simplest and least informative explanation for the animal symbolism can be found in the FAQ for Bulls & Bears for the modern board game “Stock Rush!”:

Q: Why do graphics of a Bull and a Bear appear on the spaces?

A: Tradition.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

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