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History of Steiff Animals

Updated on November 10, 2015

If you are a teddy bear or stuffed animal collector then you have probably heard of Steiff animals. These toys have a long and interesting history. Started in 1880 by a woman named Margarete Steiff, Steiff animals can be found around the world today. There are annual Steiff conventions in many countries and the company's factory, located in the town of Giengen an der Brenz in southeast Germany, gives factory tours, has a museum and a wonderful factory store.

From hawks to hamsters and any animal in between, Steiff has made them all. The Steiff company has always taken pride in it's top quality craftsmanship. This quality means that the stuffed animal toys are not inexpensive. Many of their older and rarer pieces fetch high auction prices these days.

The Steiff Toy Company is wonderful success story and their products have brought joy to children and adults around the world for over 130 years.

Have you ever heard of Steiff toys?

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Original "Diggy" on the right and the newer "Diggy" on the left.
Original "Diggy" on the right and the newer "Diggy" on the left. | Source

From 1880 to 1900

Margarete Steiff, a seamstress who had lost the use of her legs after a bout of polio, first sewed together a small felt elephant following a pattern in a german fashion magazine. She then stuffed it with lambswool. At the time, she was running a successful clothing company which made felt clothing, but found she truly enjoyed making these elephants. She gave them to children to use as toys or pincushions.

Selling 8 of her elephants in 1880 marked the official start of the Margarete Steiff Toy Company. The success of the sale of her elephants encouraged her brother, Fritz Steiff, to look for a greater audience for her toys. In 1883, he opened up a showroom in Stuttgart, Germany and it was not very long before interest began to spread. Using patterns from the german fashion magazine, Modenwelt, the company started producing a variety of stuffed animals.

By 1889, the company had a storefront and a factory. They also added a mail-order business which was quite successful. In 1892, the company produced it's first catalog and in 1894 they hired their first traveling salesman, who was integral in expanding their business to more retail stores.

The Margaret Steiff Toy company prided itself on using only the highest quality materials like felt, leather and mohair. Originally, the animals were stuffed with lambswool, which later changed to wood shavings, otherwise known as excelsior. In rare cases, real fur was used. The early animals were identified by the elephant trademark printed on paper tags that the animals all came with.

Competition prompted the company to apply for it's first patent in 1899 and it was Fritz Steiff's son, Richard Steiff, who really drove the company to international success. Richard, who had always loved bears, realized that, in the rigid masculine world of the time, boys needed a toy to snuggle with. He would go on to design many Steiff animals. Soon Richard's brothers, Paul and Fritz joined the company. Paul drew animals and was in charge of the design and quality departments. Fritz. an expert weaver, oversaw the materials and the workers who worked from their homes. It was Fritz who introduced the now famous "Button in Ear" tag.

Steiff Museum in Giengen an der Brenz
Steiff Museum in Giengen an der Brenz | Source

From 1900 to World War I

Additional factories were built in the early 1900s and business was booming. In 1903, the brothers took some of their wares to the United States. The toys were not well received, as they were considered too expensive and cumbersome for children. The brothers packed up and went back to Germany. As luck would have it after their return, an American toy store owner was in Germany for a toy fair and was unhappy with what he had seen. He visited the Steiff company, saw the bears and immediately purchased 1,000 of them.

After redesigning the animals to make them smaller and more appealing to the American audience, Franz Steiff went to World's Fair in St. Louis to try to garner business. This time it was a success and, in addition to winning numerous gold medals and the prestigious Grand Prix award, they sold 12,000 toys.

It was after this success that the company realized they needed to give the animals a more permanent means of identification. Fritz Steiff's "knopf im ohr" or "button in ear" became the now famous identifier that was patented in 1905, and is still found on all Steiff animals today.

The company really claimed fame with their bear toys due to the bear's association with the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. The famous cartoonist, Clifford K. Berryman, published a cartoon depicting Roosevelt on a hunting trip, turning away from a bear cub who had been presented to him on a leash to shoot. The public loved this presidential gesture of saving the bear cub and teddy bear fever began.

By 1913, despite the deaths of Franz and Margarete Steiff, the company thrived and was producing plush animals along with popular wheeled ride-on toys. They added holiday themed toys, as well as character dolls based on the popular cartoon characters of the day.

A sampling of old and new Steiff animals.
A sampling of old and new Steiff animals. | Source

From World War I to Present Day

During World War I production nearly stopped. Materials were difficult to obtain and many workers were called upon to fight. After the war, the company had a difficult time building it's business back up. Different animals were more popular now, and the factory had to be adjusted to fit the changing trends. Character dolls quickly fell out of favor and were discontinued.

The company did quite well for many years, continuing to adapt to changing tastes. In 1929, the great depression hit the United States and the company had to drastically cut costs in order to survive. Additionally, as anti-German sentiment grew, it was almost impossible to sell anything in the U.S.

During World War II, toy production came to a stand still as the factory began making military equipment. By the end of the war, the Steiff company was barely recognizable, and it took many years to recover and start producing toys again.

In the 1950s, many Steiff toys were added to expand the line. Dolls with vinyl heads were added and became extremely popular. In particular, the famous "Mecki", a german cartoon character, was introduced and it was this doll that really helped with Steiff's resurgence. In the 1980s, due to the increasing popularity of the older animals and dolls, Steiff began a reproduction line which they continue to this day.

Steiff ends outsourcing to China

Present Day

In 2004, in an effort to cut costs, the Steiff company's management made the controversial decision to outsource one of their less expensive toy lines to be made in China. Four years later that decision was overturned because the quality was not up to Steiff standards.

Steiff toys continuing to thrive today and are made in Germany. There is high demand for their older plush toys, and newer toy lines have been added that are geared to small babies and younger children. They sell numerous limited edition toys that are highly sought after by collectors. There are Steiff clubs in many countries and the company has a large presence on the internet. Collectors flock to the original factory in Germany and there are always huge turn-outs at Steiff conventions.

To this day, Steiff has managed to maintain it's high quality standards and their products continue to appeal to the young and the young at heart. Steiff animals are truly unique and bring joy to all who have them.

References

  • Goddu, Krystyna Poray, A Celebration of Steiff:Timeless Toys for Today, Portfolio Press, 1997
  • Wilson, Jean, Steiff Toys Revisited, Radnor, PA, Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1989

© 2012 Glimmer Twin Fan

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    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image
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      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Thanks RTalloni! You never know when you might come across one of these treasures at a yard sale or flea market! Happy New Year.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for highlighting Margarete Steiff's life and work. The Steiff Animals are "cute as a button" and I'm glad to know about their identifying marks for one never knows when one might make a delightful find!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image
      Author

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Thanks so much Letitialicious! They are lots of fun to collect.

    • Letitialicious profile image

      Letitialicious 4 years ago from Paris via San Diego

      How interesting. I love Steiff critters. My sister does even more. I'll pass this on. Thanks!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image
      Author

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      I appreciate it Deb. Hold on to your bear, especially for sentimental value, but also for other value too!

    • profile image

      GoldenThreadPress 4 years ago

      I actually have a Steiff bear and I love the fact that it has its roots in such a deep history. Great Hub!--Deb

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image
      Author

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Thanks Chris! Perfect timing on the tv show. I love watching those things. Keep an eye out next time you go to a flea market or a yard sale. You may just find one.

    • ChrisMcDade8 profile image

      Christine McDade 4 years ago from Southwest Florida

      I was watching American Pickers tonight when they found a Steiff bear. How cool! I loved the history of the company you portrayed in this hub. Very good hub.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image
      Author

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Much appreciated Millionaire! You never know what kind of treasure you may have. Check them out. It is always surprising what some stuffed animals sell for on ebay.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 4 years ago from USA

      I have many stuffed animals from my younger days, and even though the number probably would be called a collection, I never actually tried to collect them. I hadn't heard of Steiff, and probably don't have any because of the price. They are adorable though! Thanks for letting us know about this woman and the company.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image
      Author

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      I appreciate it teaches! They are cute. Unfortunately I don't have a Mecki. Wish I did.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      I have never heard of Steiff toys, but I think they are so adorable. I like the 1950 Mecki and would love to have one. Interesting hub article and well done.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image
      Author

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Suzette - Thanks for the comments. You're right, she didn't mope and her company's animals are wonderful. I appreciate the visit!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Well, Margaret Steiff didn't sit around and mope because she had been stricken with polio. What a wonderful story and I love the bears. I don't have a Steiff bear, but want to get one someday - I have a teddy bear collection. Thanks for an interesting and informative article.