Steiff Bears

The world-famous Steiff Teddy Bear - Photo courtesy of Iain Cameron

For generations, Steiff bears and other animals have delighted children and adults alike. Steiff is a family-owned company situated in the West German town of Giengen, a picturesque community at the foot of the Swabian Alps. 

A bust of Theodore Roosevelt has a place of honor in the Giengen Town Hall because the famous Steiff teddy bear is named after America’s 26th President.

The Teddy Bear has become Steiff’s most popular toy, nevertheless, it is still one of many different animals made by the company. Antique Steiff Teddy Bears from this era are now valuable collectibles and jealously guarded from harm. Whatever they were originally, they are certainly not toys now.

The Steiff company was started by Margarete Steiff, a dressmaker in Giengen. Margarete was a remarkable woman who was partially paralyzed by polio. She began making toy elephants from felt to be used as pin cushions. However, they became so popular with the children that she soon gave up dressmaking to concentrate on making the stuffed Steiff animals. Demand was so great that relatives pitched in to help her meet orders.

Margarete Steiff’s nephew, Richard, designed the Steiff stuffed bear around the same time as stuffed bears began to appear in the United States in response to Teddy Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a captive bear. This was entirely coincidental and there is no indication that he had any knowledge of the American trend. However, the rising popularity of the teddy bear was very beneficial to the Steiff business. When the Steiff Teddy Bear was used for table decorations at Alice Roosevelt’s (Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter) wedding, the massive publicity created such a demand that Steiff sold 974,000 Steiff bears.

As was to be expected, the teddy bear craze faded and Steiff had to endure the economic hardships common to German businesses in the early part of the twentieth century. The depression and two world wars would have put a lesser family out of business, but not the Steiffs. Although Margarete Steiff died in 1909, the business was carried on by loyal descendents determined to keep it afloat. They took the decision to diversify and manufacture a variety of toys including kites, wooden scooters, wagons and construction sets and succeeded in keeping the business going. All the while, Steiff stuffed animals were made to the same high standard.

Steiff animals are stitched and stuffed by hand and an effort is made to give each animal a distinctive look. Some animals have voice boxes so that they can emulate their namesakes and many are jointed. The original, now antique Steiff teddy bear was jointed to allow movement of limbs and the head. Steiff animals are designed to be loved and are modeled on young animals with all their unsteadiness and gracelessness.

The original Steiff bears are now antique Steiff Teddy Bears. The quality has stood the test of time and they have historical meaning. Collectors of antique Steiff Teddy Bears occasionally donate their Steiff bear to a museum or other display so that people have the opportunity to see them. They keep in touch with other collectors through clubs and more recently through online forums.

Steiff stuffed animals are still beautifully made and wonderful gifts for children. They may have become collectors items by default, but they were not made to be so. Bears and other toys by Steiff were made to be loved and appreciated by young ones, not to be kept in glass cases. So if you know a little person who would just love to slobber all over a special stuffed friend or hug the stuffing out of it, don’t be afraid to give them a Steiff bear. After all, it’s what Steiff is all about.

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