Steiff Stuffies

By Elizabeth Stewart   |   June 18, 2024
Slink surrounded by his new Steiff friends

In a little Midwestern red brick two-bedroom house in 1960s Deerfield, Illinois, there came a burly gentleman who didn’t speak English. He had a four-foot-long walrus under his massive ruddy arm with a blue bow around its neck. That stranger was my mom’s cousin from Germany, and the walrus was a Steiff, a famous German maker of mohair animals. I still have the walrus and many more Steiff animals, as most of my mother’s relatives came over from Germany to our tiny house bearing gifts for me made by Steiff.

Passing a yard sale this past Memorial Day, I saw a much-loved recumbent 60s-era Steiff ‘Leo’ Lion in mohair. At 36” long, this Leo had a long tan and brown mohair mane and tail, embroidered nose, mouth, and paws. He had two Steiff friends with him; a 15” long recumbent lion and a 24” striped (airbrushed) tiger. Of course I bought all three. One of my grandchildren will have the whole collection of mine foisted upon them soon!

The founder in 1877 of the Steiff Company was a female entrepreneur, Margarete Steiff, whose motto was “Freedom is believing in yourself.” On the company website “Die Welt von Steiff” (‘the world of,’ or ‘according to,’ Steiff), her history is elucidated. Born in 1847, at 18 months she developed polio which dogged her for her entire life. In 1877 she opened a felt clothing shop and made small felt elephant (Elefante) pincushions, which became a popular kid’s toy. She hired 10 seamstresses and made small monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, mice, dogs, cats, rabbits, and giraffes. All these soft felt toys became sought after, thus in 1893 the Leipzig Toy Fair asked her to show her ‘Filzspielwarenfabrik’ goods. Harrods in London noticed her work and commissioned felt toys in 1895 from her. 

As she was getting older and better known, her favorite creative nephew joined her company in 1897 after studying design at the School of Applied Arts in England. Richard Steiff is credited with the design that made Steiff Toys famous: the cuddly bear, in 1902, with movable arms and legs, made of mohair. The fabric had been discovered at the Leipzig Toy Fair on another dealer’s bear. Richard jointed the arms and legs at first with string, then rods, and in 1905, he invented disk joints, still used today. An American company noticed the Steiff bear and ordered 3,000 on the spot. Since Richard had “borrowed’ the idea of a mohair bear body, he made a metal button for each toy labelled “Steiff” as a protection against such “borrowing” from his own efforts.

The bear became the Teddy Bear when, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear on a leash during a hunt. When the newspapers carried the story and the illustration, Steiff bears flew off shelves branded as Teddy Bears.

Three years after the Teddy Bear boom began, Margarete died of pneumonia. She had witnessed incredible success, which continued under her nephew, who in 1931 formed a partnership with Walt Disney. Cartoon characters entered the Steiff oeuvre, created by a staff of 2,000 workers in ultra-modern Bauhaus style glass factories. 

If you had German relatives like I did in the 1960s you might have been gifted a Hedgehog “Mecki,” synonymous with German-ness in his Lederhosen and hunter cap. Another famous “animal” for Steiff!

In 1980, commemorating the 100th year of Steiff history, a Steiff Museum opened in Germany producing limited edition stuffed toys. The museum also featured a Disney-style theme park with a gigantic snake slide, a petting zoo, and a children’s ride on life sized Steiff tigers, elephants, camels, and gorillas. The German icon of fashion, Karl Lagerfeld, was commissioned to design a line of stuffed toys all wearing his signature dark sunglasses. A high-priced Louis Vuitton bear was designed in Paris. Finally, in 2020, Margarete, who would have been 140, was inducted into the Toy Industry’s Hall of Fame as the Steiff bear turned 120 years old.

My newly adopted lions and one tiger are worth $300 for the set; if the condition of the mohair were better, they would be worth far more. Of course, Steiff toys – like other toys – are scarce in excellent or original condition because kids played with them. The highest price ever paid for a bear was 213,720 Euros in 2000 by a Korean collector. The highest auction sale was for a 1912 bear at Christie’s for 150,212 Euros.  


You might also be interested in...