Before Steiff, there was no such thing as a Teddy Bear. Arguably, that in itself makes Steiff one of the most important toy companies in history. When you look deeper into the origins of the Steiff Bear, it only gets more interesting! Founded by a woman with a physical disability, it’s a testament to Margarete Steiff’s dedication to her work and how her family came together to make the company what it is today…
How It Began
On the 24th of July 1847, Margarete Steiff was born in Germany, and at 18 months old, she developed polio which wouldn’t be diagnosed for three years. Suffering from paralysis in her legs and pain in her right arm, it was difficult for her to do most things. Doctors tried many cures, but none helped. Despite her suffering, Margarete began school in 1858 at the age of 11. Every day she was taken to school in a handcart driven by her siblings and neighbours, and upon arriving at the school, a woman living nearby would carry her up to the classroom.
Steiff took sewing lessons despite the pain in her right hand, and upon completing her training at 17, she worked as a tailor in her sister’s dress-making store. After eight years, her sisters left town, so Steiff started her own workshop out of her family home where her father set up a little workshop for her. With her first paycheck, Margarete bought a sewing machine, and unable to operate the flywheel with her right hand, she had to rotate the machine around to use it with her left hand!
In 1877, Steiff started a felt clothing business which did well enough that she was able to hire several seamstresses. In 1879 came her first real step towards the Steiff company as we know it today; Margarete picked up a copy of a magazine called “Modenwelt” which contained a sewing pattern for a small fabric elephant. From this pattern, she created an elephant pincushion called the “Elefäntle” which became her most popular product, but not as a pincushion! As it turned out, children really enjoyed playing with the little elephants leading Steiff to open “Margarete Steiff, Felt Toy Factory Giengen/Brenz” in 1880. She went on to produce more than 5,000 elephants, along with a variety of other animals such as monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, and much more.
The Next Step
In 1897, Richard Steiff, Margarete’s favourite nephew, joined the company at the age of 20. Richard studied at the School of Art in Stuttgart, during which he became very interested in brown bears and made it his mission to create a soft toy that would capture their “spirit and charm”. After creating stationary bears, and a classic bear on wheels, he decided a limb-moving system would be the way to capture their charm. Five years after his studies, he developed the world’s first jointed teddy bear known as Bear 55 PB which used strings to allow the limbs to move. They took off in 1903 when an American businessman discovered the bear and ordered 3,000 of them.
Over the next three years, the bears were refined; in 1904 the 35 PB and the 28 PB were created which had the tell-tale Steiff “Button in Ear” embossed with an elephant as an anti-counterfeit measure. In 1905, the joints were changed from rod joints to disc joints, which is a method still used today. Finally, in 1906, it officially became known as the Teddy Bear which was inspired by US President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt after he refused to shoot a bear tied to a leash during a hunting trip. This resulted in a cartoon by Cliffort K. Berryman in the Washington Post depicting the situation (below) which ended up being amazing publicity for the Steiff bear. By 1907, almost 1 million Teddy bears and 1.7 million toys total had been produced. In 1909, Margarete Steiff died of pneumonia leading to her nephews taking over the company.
With the War came a shortage of materials which greatly affected the Steiff company. To combat this, Steiff created the “paper plush teddy bear” which was made of cellulose. They also utilised domestic woods to create their bears.
During the 20s, demand for fabric and plush returned, so Steiff began a production line to cope with demand. It was then that their “Molly the Steiff Dog” became wildly popular, selling over half a million in 7 years. A year after the World War Ended and production began again, Steiff employed almost 1,000 people, which grew to 5,000 by 1952.
Notable Moments in Steiff History
1895: First foreign business relationship with Harrods, London
1903: The east building, popularly known as the “virgin aquarium”, is built in a double glass steel construction. Later, other buildings of this type follow, which are now listed as historic buildings.
1931: The first figures were created with Disney, which is a partnership that continues today.
1980: The Margarete Steiff Museum opens to mark the 100th anniversary of Steiff. They also began producing limited numbers of replicas for Steiff enthusiasts.
1992: The Steiff Club is founded.
2005: The new Steiff Adventure Museum “Die Welt von Steiff” opened its doors for the first time to mark its 125th anniversary. The museum’s highlight is the extremely valuable 125 Karat Teddy bear edition.
What makes a Steiff Bear?
Mohair Fur and Felt Pads
Steiff used mohair for the bulk of their teddy bears due to its soft, bear-like texture. They also used felt patches to sew the teddys arms and feet closed while looking as close to a real bear as possible.
Wood Wool Stuffing
Although not all of Steiff’s bears were stuffed with wood wool (excelsior), the most valuable of their bears were. These bears made a very distinct crunching noise when squeezed. By 1905, the bears’ bodies were filled with a softer stuffing (kapok), but their heads kept the excelsior padding to retain its facial structure.
Early Steiff bears were supported by a metal “skeleton” and gave them their iconic stiff appearance, allowing for movement of the limbs.
Finally, the “Button in Ear” is the most common way to tell if it’s a Steiff bear. The early bears will have an Elephant engraved onto the button, but most will have “Steiff” engraved with a yellow ribbon attached. If there is no button, this doesn’t mean it’s not a Steiff! It may have just come off with wear and teat, so a hole in the bear’s ear might indicate there was once a button there.
Steiff Bear Values
As with any collectable, there are various reasons that make a particular item more expensive than others. For Steiff bears these factors include fur condition, manufacturing date, historic significance, and rarity. Steiff bears that are in good condition often sell for hundreds of dollars, and in a few cases, hundreds of thousands! Typically, the bears made prior to the 1950s are the ones that bring in the most money. That doesn’t stop avid collectors from wanting the more recent bears, though!
A Few of the Most Expensive Steiff Bears Ever Sold:
- Louis Vuitton Bear: Sold for $182,550 in 2000.
Most expensive teddy bear ever sold.
- Titanic Mourning Bear: Sold for $156,273 in 2000 to the Puppenhaus Museum in Switzerland.
Created in memory of the Titanic victims. Only 665 bears were produced.
- 1905 Teddy Girl: Sold for $100,000 in 1994 at Christie’s
“Teddy Girl” fought alongside Colonel Bob Henderson during World War II, and they both returned home heroes.
- 1908 Blue Steiff Bear: Sold for $160,000 in 1993
‘Elliot’ had been manufactured as a sample for Harrods, but was rejected and left for decades in the Steiff headquarters in Germany.
- 1925 Harlequin Teddy: Appraised by Christie’s to be worth $66,000 to $105,000
It sports a red and blue mohair coat and first belonged to a woman who worked for Steiff for over forty years and was given to her in honour of her service.
If you think you have a Steiff bear (or any other collectable item) that you’d like to sell, get in contact with our appraisers today!