The 15-cm baby Jumbo, most likely what Steiff refers to as a “hand sample”—a prototype of an item that is produced experimentally. Sometimes, these make it into the general line and sometimes they do not. In this case, the 15-cm Jumbo elephant was not put into general production, making this sample of particular interest to collectors.
Every enthusiast has extra-special items in their collections—certain items that just take a gold medal for their rarity, design or the story behind them. Here is one of those treasures from my hug of over 700 vintage Steiff collectibles.
It’s easy to want to put your hands (and in this case, trunk) in the air when it comes to this delightful set of Steiff sitting elephants!
What we have here is a pair of Steiff’s soft grey mohair elephants. Technically, their design name is “Jumbo.” The larger one is 35 centimeters and the smaller one is 15 cm. They are head-and-arm jointed, sitting up and made from super-soft short grey mohair. Their faces are detailed with black and white google eyes and each has an open peach colored felt-lined mouth. Their paw pads are made from grey felt. Both Jumbos wear a red felt bib; the larger one is scalloped while the smaller one is pinked. This beloved Steiff design is exceptionally sweet and childlike—even joyful!
Overall, Jumbo was produced in the general Steiff line from 1952 through 1975 and came in two sizes, 22 and 35 cm. These models, with their raised-script-style Steiff buttons, were made in the approximately 1952-through-1969 time frame.
Their History and Design Legacy:
First—we need to go way back into history to put these elephants into Steiff context. Although Steiff is best known for its collectible and playful Teddy bears, it is safe to say that an elephant truly launched the Steiff Company. In 1880, Margarete Steiff was in in the felt clothing business, creating warm felt underskirts and other garments for sale across Germany. She saw a little pattern for an elephant pincushion in a ladies fashion and housekeeping magazine and decided to make a few. They were so well-received as toys for her nieces, nephews and the children of her employees that she started to make a whole line of felt animals. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It is also very interesting to note that a tiny elephant, with his trunk curved into an S, was the first design on Steiff’s now ubiquitous “button-in-ear” branding. Items sporting the “elephant button,” as it is known, are universally considered the Holy Grail by collectors.
Elephants have appeared continuously in the Steiff line since the catalog first debuted in 1892. They have appeared sitting, standing, on wheels, as roly-polys and skittles, as dolls and woolen miniatures, and as wooden pull toys, among other designs. They have ranged in size from just 5 cm to authentic, “larger than life” circus-style elephants—complete with matching headdresses and blankets!
A photo of the first Steiff elephant in the form of a pincushion from 1880. This photo was taken by the author at the Steiff Museum in Giengen, Germany.
These particular Jumbo elephants reflect a very creative and optimistic time at Steiff, and in turn, its product designs and development process. Starting in the early 1950s, the company looked to rebuild its pre-war reputation for quality, while at the same time introduce new, innovative, contemporary designs to an expanding global marketplace. Many of these period patterns were happy and playful appearances, while at the same time having distinctly childlike or cartoonish features to them. This was accomplished through details like large or goofy eyes, exaggerated smiles, chubby features, brilliant airbrushing and other designs. You can see these features on Steiff’s 1950s-era Zotty bears and dinosaurs, to name just a few.
Why they are so Special to Me:
This set is exceptionally meaningful to me in many ways. Perhaps readers noted above in the description that the little elephant is 15 cm and that the item was produced in the standard line in 22 and 35 cm. Yes, the baby is most likely what Steiff refers to as a “hand sample”—a prototype of an item that is produced experimentally. Sometimes, these make it into the general line and sometimes they do not. In this case, the 15-cm Jumbo elephant was not put into general production, making this sample of particular interest to collectors. And, although she has her Steiff button in ear and her yellow ear tag, I do not believe she ever had a Steiff chest tag given her sample status.
These pieces also have a very interesting origin. They were purchased recently at the 2012 Teddy Dorado Auction. This is an event produced in conjunction with the annual Steiff collector’s event which is held each summer in Giengen, Germany. I was extremely fortunate to be asked to be a presenter at this auction. This meant I wore white gloves, walked the stage and displayed the precious items for sale to the audience. I had seen this set in the auction catalog and fell in love with it at first sight. They were even more delightful when I saw them in person at a pre-auction sales party a few days before the event.
On the day of the auction, I had instructed my husband, who was in the auction audience, to bid on the pair on my behalf. Most fortunately, but through random luck, I was the presenter assigned to the pair and got to share it with the audience. It was such a thrill from the stage to see my husband bid competitively for the set—and win! As the hammer went down, he and some colleagues shouted “Happy Anniversary!” As it turns out, our 23rd wedding anniversary was the following day, and he intended this winning treasure to be the celebratory gift!
A set of 35- and 15-cm Steiff Jumbos from 1952-through-1969 time frame.
Although considered relatively “recent” by vintage standards, this elephant design—as well as other products from the playful 1950s era—are gaining tremendous interest among collectors. This is most likely because individuals who seek these products had them originally as kids—and are looking to either own them again or give them as sentimental gifts to their children and/or grandchildren.
This elephant design was clearly made for fun and play, so examples in like-new condition with full IDs are somewhat uncommon. In general, as this model ages, it tends to this to collapse a bit over time due to its soft stuffing: it loses its red bib and tends to exhibit a very droopy trunk. Clearly, these examples have none of these issues.
As always, things are worth what someone will pay for them. It is my belief that pristine Steiff items from the 1950-era just may be the next big area of interest for collectors, given they are still somewhat available and “relatively” affordable. Of course, one-of-a-kind Steiff items or “hand samples” like the 15 cm baby, are—and will always be—on every collector’s dream list. It is my best guestimate that this unusual 1950s elephant pair in the United States today, in like new condition with full ID, values in the $600 to $900-plus range. Of course, given their history and backstory, to me they’re priceless!
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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