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Steiff has Been Squirrely Since the very Beginning: An Early Velvet Squirrel Rattle

by Rebekah Kaufman (07/13/12).

An early brown and white velvet Steiff squirrel baby rattle.

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 more than 700 vintage Steiff collectibles.

The item:
It’s hard to keep quiet about this very rare Steiff squirrel with a delightful and not so secret rattle feature hidden in her belly!

What we have here is Steiff’s Eichhorn or squirrel. This field and forest friend is 10 cm tall, sitting and unjointed. Her body is made from tan velvet that has been very carefully hand airbrushed with brown on her back, limbs, and face. Her tail is made from matching brown bushy mohair. Her face is detailed with small black wooden shoe-button eyes and a very simple tan colored hand embroidered nose and mouth. Most remarkably, she retains one single clear monofilament whisker—after all these years of play!

Like several popular turn of last century Steiff designs, this squirrel was manufactured as a baby’s rattle. This was accomplished by inserting a small hollow tube or pouch filled with beads into the torso of the animal. Steiff created rattles from the smaller or smallest versions of standard line items, including Teddy bears, cats, and rabbits. The rattle is very soft and gentle sounding when shaken about.

According to Steiff records, this velvet squirrel was produced in 5, 10, 12 and 17 cm from 1901 through 1920. This particular example, with her 4 mm trailing “F” Steiff button, suggests that she was made in the 1906 through 1920 time frame.

Her history and design legacy:
Squirrels have been a part of the Steiff offering since 1897; the first one to appear was begging, unjointed, and made from brown felt. In 1901, this original design was updated and made in velvet—which is where the squirrel under discussion here fits into the picture. The velvet squirrels were also produced as tumblers and pincushions; a model with a basket on her back and a model on a leaf were produced from 1902 through 1917. Starting in 1909, Steiff also began producing squirrels in mohair; only a few new models appeared through 1942. They progressed from fully jointed in 1909 to unjointed by the mid-1930s. Some later versions held velvet nuts and had tails lined in wires for fun and flexibility. Steiff also made a 17 cm “Punch Squirrel” or squirrel hand puppet from 1937 through 1938.

A pair of the gray and brown velvet and mohair squirrels Steiff produced immediately following WWII.

Squirrels were one of the very first items manufactured following World War Two when the factory reopened for business in the late 1940s. The basic pre-war velvet and mohair squirrel design was brought back into the catalog from 1949 through 1956; it was produced in brown and gray. In 1957, Steiff updated this squirrel design and for the first time, gave the pattern a “real” name—Possy—who was begging, unjointed and made from either brown and white or gray and white mohair. Possy appeared in the line from 1957 through 1976 and was manufactured in 10, 14 and 22 cm.

Steiff created another beloved squirrel pattern in the late 1950s, inspired by a Walt Disney documentary entitled “True Life Adventures.” This film, released in 1957, “starred” a squirrel named Perri who faced many challenges and adventures. Perri was made from brown-tipped mohair, has a great shaggy tail, and feet and hands made out of thick felt. One of Perri’s most distinctive features is his white felt backed eyes. Perry was made in 12, 17 and 22 cm from 1959 through 1983. The 17 and 22 cm versions came with a beautifully airbrushed velvet pine cone, about 2.5 cm long.

Squirrels really have never gone into hibernation in the Steiff line. From the 1960s through today, they have appeared as woolen miniatures and soft play animals. It is clear that these bushy tailed beauties have a special place in the hearts of many Steiff collectors. As a matter of fact, the velvet rattle squirrel under discussion here was the inspiration behind a 2006 Steiff limited edition replica Christmas tree ornament.

Why she’s so special to me:
One of the great pleasures of collecting is never really knowing where the next great find will surface. And such is the case with this exceptional one! Out of the blue, I received an e-mail from a fellow who lives in the Mid-Western part of the United States. He sent me photos of a few early toys, including this Steiff rattle squirrel. He wanted to know about their age, design legacy, value and if I were interested in adopting any of them.

Most interestingly, the fellow also had a record of the history of the items, which were passed along through three generations of the same family. Apparently, the toys—and the family—spent most of their lives in New York City. They were purchased at FAO Schwarz at the turn of last century as baby gifts for the son of the hotel manager of both the Hotel Seville and the original Waldorf Astoria in New York City. This baby would grow up to be the chief engineer for the Empire State Building during the middle portion of the 20th century. The engineer’s children—now in their 60s—were looking for a good place to rehome these precious family treasures.

From a collector’s perspective, talk about being at the right place at the right time!

A photo of Possy (left) and Perri (right), popular mid-20th century Steiff squirrels.

Her value:
Items designed as baby toys, such as this squirrel rattle, were made to be used, so examples in very good or excellent condition with IDs are extremely rare. And, due to the nature of these toys, vintage rattles tend to be a bit dirty and exhibit wear around the middle section. Luckily, this example does not have either of these issues. This particular pattern is extremely endearing and quite appealing, so much so that it was brought back as a Steiff replica a handful of years ago. For comps, somewhat recent sales of early turn of last century Steiff velvet rattles in very good to excellent condition have been in the approximately $600 to $1,600 price range.

As always, something is worth what someone will pay for it, and these sorts of Steiff rarities will always generate interest and will without a doubt appreciate over time. It is my best guestimate that this Steiff velvet and mohair rattle squirrel in the United States today, in very good plus condition with her small trailing “F” button, values in the $900 to $1,500 range.

Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.

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