Oh Baby! A Look Back at Steiff’s Toys for Tots from the 1970s and ’80s
This Steiff baby toy from the early 1980s is the adorable “wuerfel” or cube is a soft, six-sided block that measures 10-cm in all directions. It is is the last block, wooden or otherwise, produced by the Steiff to date.
The long-standing tag line for the Steiff Company, articulated by the founder Margarete Steiff at the turn of last century, is “Only the best for our children.” Of course, Steiff is best known for its high quality and collectible Teddy bears, animals, and dolls, which in many cases were designed as playthings, but the company has also dabbled in products specifically for babies since its founding in the late 1880s.
Early examples from 1897 onward include felt rattles in the forms of dressed rabbits, birds and flowers, and hanging “pram” or baby carriage toys in the form of felt farm animals and household pets. However, it really wasn’t until the early 1970s that Steiff regularly started manufacturing soft, durable, baby-centric items as part of its standard line production. And, it is interesting to see how these toddler treats evolved in materials and design over time. Let’s take a look at five interesting baby items from the 1970s through early 1980s and see what makes them so interesting from the design, construction, and product evolution standpoints.
Let’s start out the discussion with a bang! Here we have Steiff’s 30-centemiter baby hammer, made entirely from mohair. The head is red, green and white, and softly stuffed with foam. The handle is black with a red tip, and is lined with a plastic rod. The yellow tag is sewn into one of the seams on the head, and the Steiff button is inserted into this tag. According to Steiff records, despite being mohair, this item was “fully washable.” This hammer was available in this size only from 1970 through 1974.
It’s easy to see how a baby could have a ball with this related item—a Steiff swinging ball. This toy is made from red, blue, green, yellow, black and white mohair and has a red mohair handle. The ball is stuffed with foam and softly jingles when it is tossed about. The yellow and Steiff button are inserted into the handle. Like the hammer, this item was described as “fully washable.” Swinging ball was produced in this size only from 1970 through 1977.
Steiff’s 30-centemiter baby hammer is made entirely from mohair. And was “fully washable,” according to company records. This hammer was available in this size only from 1970 through 1974.
The hammer and swinging ball baby items are examples of just a handful of mohair playthings made specifically for babies post World War II. The others include a play ring, double ball set (basically two swinging balls on one handle) and a drumstick—all manufactured during the same time as the hammer and swinging ball. From a product development perspective, it is clear that the company was trying to create interesting, innovative items for tots but had not yet explored other more “practical” materials from which to produce them. That would change at the end of the 1970s with the introduction of Nicki-Stoff or nicki velour, an inexpensive, highly durable, truly washable and all but indestructible soft fabric that would prove ideal for baby toy production through the 1990s.
Steiff’s swinging ball is made from red, blue, green, yellow, black and white mohair and has a red mohair handle. It was produced in this size only from 1970 through 1977.
Let’s take off with this next 1970s-era Steiff baby toy. Here we have the company’s “Baby Jet.” This 8-cm-tall toy is made from hard-molded plastic; the entire body is red and is one seamless piece. The plane rolls along on two black plastic wheels that are supported on one metal axle. The plane doesn’t have a Steiff button; for branding it has the company’s white Teddy bear faced mascot and the words “knopf im ohr” (button in ear) painted on the front. Baby Jet was made from 1975 through 1982 in this size only.
Steiff’s “Baby Jet” is 8-cm and made from hard-molded plastic. The plane doesn’t have a Steiff button; for branding it has the company’s white Teddy bear faced mascot and the words “knopf im ohr” (button in ear) painted on the front. It was made from 1975 through 1982 in this size only.
Unlike the mohair ball and hammer, this item is made from a most unusual material from Steiff—hard plastic. In addition to Baby Jet, Steiff also produced a Baby Roll (red car), Baby Dig (yellow bulldozer), Baby Duck (yellow duck) and Baby Slo (green turtle); all were also 8-cm tall, on wheels, simply designed and made from plastic. It is my best guess—knowing the production capabilities of Steiff at the time—that these were outsourced to another manufacturer for production and then distributed by Steiff under the Steiff brand. And, as far as I can research, these period baby items represent the only hard, molded plastic items to be produced by Steiff to date.
Made from nicki velour—a very child-friendly material—this item simply called “wagenkette” or “pram toy.” It consists of five total walnut-sized nicki velour balls strung together on a blue cord and wach ball has a large jingle bell inside of it. It was produced from 1980 through 1985 in this size only.
The pieces made from nicki velour—a very child-friendly material—include this item simply called “wagenkette” or “pram toy.” It consists of five total walnut-sized nicki velour balls strung together on a blue cord. There are two yellow balls, two red balls and one blue ball. Each ball has a large jingle bell inside of it. The pram toy has a yellow Steiff tag sewn into the seam of one of the yellow balls, but never had a button. This item measures 94-cm from end to end, and was designed to be hung across the top or front of a baby carriage. It was produced from 1980 through 1985 in this size only.
As mentioned in the introduction, Steiff started producing pram toys around the turn of last century. However, these earliest carriage companions looked nothing like this more modern interpretation. A good example of an early Steiff pram toy is this hanging goat toy; the photo is from Gunther Pfeiffer’s “1892-1943 Steiff Sortiment” book. The hanging goat is made from felt, wears a collar and bell, and is suspended from an elastic cord. The cord is decorated with colored woolen balls and hangs from an ivory ring. This pram toy appeared in the line from 1902 through 1908. It is interesting to note that Steiff often used its pram toys to decorate Christmas trees in adverting photographs from 1910 through the 1920s.
A good example of an early Steiff pram toy is this hanging goat toy, which was made from felt and is suspended from an elastic cord. It appeared in the Steiff line from 1902 through 1908. (Photo: Gunther Pfeiffer’s “1892-1943 Steiff Sortiment”)
This final Steiff baby toy from the early 1980s is the adorable “wuerfel” or cube. It is a soft, six-sided block that measures 10-cm in all directions. It is machine washable and feels like it is made from a very durable polyester fabric. Each side has a full color illustration of some of Steiff’s most popular patterns, including Zotty bear, Jocko monkeys and the Micki and Macki hedgehog families. Although this item was clearly designed for hands-on baby play many years ago, many collectors today love it as it is great for displays and photographs. This cube was made from 1982 through 1986 in this size and design only.
Blocks and building toys are legacy products for Steiff, and were developed through the marriage of creativity and necessity. Playthings made from wood were a significant part of the company’s pre-war WWII product mix. In the late teens and early 1920s, mohair, felt, velvet and other high-end materials were in very short supply due to limited manufacturing following the First World War. At the time, Steiff had plenty of access to wood, so the company started creating many products from this material. These items included pull toys, wagons, rolly-polys, scooters, and of course, building blocks. The company continued producing a nice range of high-quality wooden toys through the 1970s. As far as I can tell, this “wuerfel,” or cube, is the last block, wooden or otherwise, produced by the company to date.
Steiff’s playful postwar baby items are fun collectibles and add a very whimsical touch to more serious Steiff displays. These toys are somewhat hard to find on the secondary market in very good or better condition as they were produced for fun and play, and most that do come up for sale usually have a bit of playwear to them. Despite all that, perhaps because they are considered relatively recent by vintage standards, it does not require a large financial investment to add them to a collection. In terms of value, as always, something is worth what someone will pay for it, and condition plays a big role in determining the final price tag.
Here in the United States, the Steiff mohair hammer and swinging ball may each value in the $70 to $125 range. The Baby Jet (and others in this unusual series) may value in the $30 to $60 range. And, the nicki velour pram toy and the polyester soft cube may each value in the $40 to $80 range. This assumes each item is in very good to excellent condition with at least one form of ID.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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