How to Identify an Early Production Steiff Bears (1892-1929)
An early Steiff Teddy Bear, circa 1909.
Nothing is more exciting for a Teddy Bear enthusiast than discovering or owning an early Steiff (button-in-ear) brand cub. Steiff launched its charter catalog of playthings in 1892, but it was not until around 1902 that the “modern” five-ways-jointed Teddy Bear as we know it was introduced; he was string jointed. A few years later, Steiff began experimenting with internal metal rod jointing. By 1905, Steiff began manufacturing its jointed Bears with a cardboard disc system, a process still used today.
So how do you identify a Steiff Bear from the early 1900s through the 1920s? Although dating and valuing Steiff can sometimes be more of an art than a science—given the handmade nature of the items and production variations—these general rules usually hold true:
The majority of early Steiff Bears from this time frame were made from blond mohair. They were also produced in white mohair. Far fewer were produced in dark brown mohair and just a handful were made in black. Mohair is a fabric that is made from a base of cotton material that has fine strands of wool woven through it, much like a hooked rug. Most early bears were stuffed entirely and firmly with excelsior (wood wool), although Steiff did sometimes use kapok (a lighter, natural stuffing) in some of its early bears. Excelsior makes a “crunchy” noise when hugged, while kapok is much softer.
A 6-milimeter button with the elephant was issued in 1904 and 1905.
An example of the 4-mm button, issued from 1906 to 1920.
All Steiff animals from 1904 left the factory in Giengen, Germany, with a metal button in their ears. The earliest button, from 1904-1905, is 6-milimeters across and has a little elephant on it. From late 1905 through 1906, the button is 6mm and blank. From 1906 through the mid 1920s, the button is 4mm and has the word “Steiff” with the last “f” in “Steiff” trailing backwards to the letter “e” in “Steiff.” And from the mid 1920s through the mid 1930s, the button is 8mm and has the word “Steiff” with the last “f” in “Steiff” trailing backwards to the letter “e” in “Steiff.”
The earliest Steiff ear tags are white and made from paper or a light linen material. They appear, or appeared, on items from 1905 through 1926. In 1926, Steiff changed the ear tag color to red. Then in 1934, the ear tag became yellow and remained so until the early 1980s, when Steiff replaced the fragile material with a more durable cloth version.
A bear with a red ear tag, which was first used in 1926.
An early Steiff chest tag, protected by a plastic sleeve.
Although Steiff used a variety of sewn-on cardboard tags on their items from 1897 through 1904, the first wide scale use of Steiff chest tags appeared around 1926. These were in the form of a round white cardboard disk with a metal frame and appeared through 1928. From 1928, the Steiff chest tag became more colorful and detailed and featured a happy, angular yellow Bear face and the name of the Steiff item printed in red on the tag. This style appeared through 1952.
Early Steiff bears have jet black wooden, or “shoebutton” eyes that are set deeply into its face. From the mid-19-teens, black-and-brown-pupil eyes were available at a premium. In general, early Steiff bears have relatively long, pointed snouts. As for facial stitching, blond bears have black noses and mouths, while white bears have brown noses and mouths. The typical earliest nose from 1905 is stitched like a bar, with a few stitches in the middle reaching down to join into a simple V-shaped mouth. From a collector’s perspective, the most interesting vintage Steiff bears are the “center seam” examples; at the turn of last century, every seventh bear that Steiff made had a seam down the center of his face to make the most efficient use of the expensive mohair fabric.
An example of a Steiff Teddy Bear, circa 1920.
Early Steiff bears have relatively consistent proportions. In general, their torsos are twice as long as their heads. They have long, narrow limbs. When standing, the fingertips of these Bears extend down to their knees. Their feet are long and narrow and they are in a ratio of 1:5 to their height. They also have a very pronounced back hump.
Early, classic style Steiff mears were produced in 10, 15, 18, 22, 25, 30, 32, 35, 40, 46, 50, 60, 70, and 115 centimeters, measured standing, although their product identification number (sometimes legible on the ear tag) referred to their seated size.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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