Some people look at adversity and crumble. Others see it as a slight hurdle and leap. Margarete Steiff was a leaper. Born in the town of Giegen-on-the-Brenz, Germany in 1847, she was afflicted from the start with polio. She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Margarete was the first person to own a sewing machine in her town. Due to her disability she had to run it backwards. Her skill as a seamstress was remarkable, but so was her attitude toward life. She saved the scraps of felt material and in her spare time made animals for the children in the neighborhood. This soon developed into a sideline, whereby she created an elephant pincushion that was sold in quantities.
Margarete joined forces with her brother Fritz and established the “Felt Toy Company” in 1893. In the early 1900’s her nephew Richard convinced his aunt to produce a bear with jointed limbs, called “Barle.” This was introduced at the Leipzig Trade Fair in 1903 and received mixed reviews. An American buyer named Hermann Berg (good German name) ordered 3,000, however, for his company, George Borgfeldt & Co.
The next year Franz Steiff, another nephew working for his aunt, sold 12,000 smaller bears at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Margarete and Richard were awarded Gold Medals for industry and effort. Shortly thereafter, they came up with a trademark-a small nickel-plated button in the left ear bearing the Stieff name. They kept perfecting the bear look and movement and by 1906, just 2 years later, their “teddy” bear was the company’s best seller (they made other animals as well). In 1907 they changed the company name to “The Margarete Steiff Toy Factory Ltd.” They produced 974,000 teddy bears. (That’s a whole lot of felt!)
Of course, the Teddy was so named after Teddy Roosevelt. Although the Ideal Toy Company and Steiff have argued over who laid claim first, it was Steiff that won the day due to the quality and variety of toys offered to the market.
Bears came in various colors, over 10 sizes, some mechanical, even one with a metal hot water bottle concealed in the stomach. The tip of spotting one of their bears is certainly the button in the ear, but many have been dislodged through play. Mohair, a short and fuzzy material, is another key, particularly with glass eyes and a sewn nose and mouth. Felt cushions for the feet and paws complete the construction. Many were dressed, just like dolls.
The 1920’s and 30’s saw a few new creations, but it wasn’t until 1931 that they struck gold again. They were granted a license to produce Mickey and Minnie Mouse. They were created in the colorful felt with moveable joints, floppy ears, and large slipper shoes. Although the Steiff Company is still going strong and producing animals and characters of every variety, the bear still reigns supreme. In the past few years they have created Centennial pieces based on early company examples. Although they are cute, it’s the oldies that we love best.
Some of the very earliest examples can command over $20,000. You heard it right…AND they don’t have to be in ideal (a bad pun) condition! Even those not quite as old are still valuable. Even mine; one I received as a baby gift from my grandmother when she came to the US from Germany in 1949. It’s about 20″ tall, is brown curly hair with big glass eyes, a sewn mouth, and a growler when you turn it over. (It may not be worth quite $20,000, but this is one “I wouldn’t really sell for anything.”
So keep your eyes peeled for the bears…the teddy bears. Not only do they have history, charm, and nostalgia, they have a creator that loved life and passed it on to her friends.
(Although Margarete died in 1909, she spent nearly 62 years doing what she loved best and what she loved best still survives. That’s good medicine, a heart of gold, and a loveable pet.)