These Early Steiff Treasures Have a Presidential Seal of Approval
Richard Steiff, the inventor of the “Teddy” bear. He looks a little like Teddy Roosevelt, doesn’t he?
With today being the President’s Day holiday, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Oval Office-inspired Steiff creations from the turn of last century.
It is puzzling to think why, in the early 1900s, a tiny toy company located in rural Germany would know about, or even care about, America or her politics. Here are three possible reasons:
The first is that despite their remote location, the company from its very humble beginnings always kept current with the news and happenings of the rest of the world through the media available at the time. As you may recall, founder Margarete Steiff designed her first soft toy—an elephant pincushion—based on a pattern she saw in an international ladies magazine around 1880.
The second may have to do with growth. By around 1904, Steiff’s products were clearly a hit in Europe and it was time to look more globally in terms of marketplace expansion. Clearly, the United States was the next logical place for sales inroads. It is interesting to note that Steiff bears appeared in the windows—and on the shelves—of FAO Schwarz by 1906.
And the third most likely had to do with product development. The company was always looking for ideas for new products based on real life happenings. And, with all the rich political imagery coming from America in the form of political cartoons and rhetorical speeches at the time, the company felt that there could be a market for Steiff inspired Presidential souvenirs.
Given that background, let’s take a look at four key Steiff vintage treasures with solid ties to the U.S. presidency:
1. Teddy Bears
A Baby Ruth Steiff bear, typical for a 1906-era Steiff Teddy.
A Steiff replica of “PB 55” issued in 2002, the 100th anniversary of the first “Teddy” bear.
Most collectors are aware that Steiff’s celebrated Teddy bears are named after America’s influential president of the time, Theodore Roosevelt. In the early 1900s, Roosevelt, an avid hunter, refused to shoot a baby bear that had been captured for his sporting pleasure. This act was captured by Clifford Berryman in a famous cartoon captioned “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” which appeared in the Washington Post in November, 1902. This cartoon captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world. Almost immediately, toy manufacturers in the U.S. and Germany—including Steiff—began making “Teddy” bears to feed the world’s new fascination with these playful cubs. As a result of creative genius coupled with great timing, Richard Steiff designed the company’s earliest five-ways string jointed “Teddy Bear” in 1902. This bear, with the unassuming name (“Bear 55 PB”; 55 = 55 cm tall; P = Plüsch or plush; and B = beweglich, or jointed) would debut at the annual Lepzig Toy Fair in Germany. The rest, as they say, is history.
Clifford Berryman’s famous cartoon captioned “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” which appeared in the Washington Post in November, 1902.
It is interesting to note that there are no known original Bear 55 PB examples in existence today; only photographs of this elusive bear. Despite that, Steiff created a 7,000-piece worldwide edition of Bear 55 PB in 2002, in honor of the 100th anniversary the Teddy bear.
2. Uncle Sam Dolls
Steiff produced a replica version of its earliest Uncle Sam doll as a limited edition of 1,000 pieces in 1994.
The inspiration for this very early cloth doll was also most likely from a political cartoon. The Steiff archives contain a clipping from a newspaper featuring a caricatured Uncle Sam, with the notation “Please make Uncle Sam as a novelty” scribbled on the back. Steiff indeed made an Uncle Sam doll; it was produced in 1904 only. He was long and skinny; about 50 cm (20 inches tall). He was five-ways jointed, had a velvet face and was otherwise primarily made from felt. He was dressed in red striped pants and a blue jacket that were integral to his body. He also wore a patriotic gray felt top hat decorated with white stars on a blue hatband. His hands were early and simple. Uncle Sam was a good example of the company’s early “charakterpuppe” dolls. These dolls were made from felt or velvet, were five-ways jointed and featured a vertical seam down the middle of their faces. These early dolls also had comical, exaggerated features—such as extremely lean or rotund bodies, huge feet or cartoon-like faces. Steiff produced a replica version of its earliest Uncle Sam doll as a limited edition of 1,000 pieces in 1994.
Steiff’s opossums did not have the charm or appeal of Teddy bears, and efforts to promote this item as the next “Teddy bear” all but failed. (Photo: Christie’s)
The next United States political event to trigger a Steiff creation happened just a few years after Uncle Sam, in 1909 with the Presidency of William Taft. The press was very anxious to give Taft a nickname like his predecessor, “Teddy” Roosevelt. It was unclear what animal would best represent Taft until one evening, when he was a dinner party in Atlanta, Ga. There, Taft enjoyed—and excessively praised—one of the evening’s main courses, “Opossum with Sweet Potatoes.” The press got hold of that passion and it was not long before William Taft would be forever known as “Billy Possum.” As a result, many people thought that the opossum would take the place of the Teddy bear as a beloved plaything and become a nationwide—or perhaps worldwide—mascot of good will. In response to this news from Washington, Steiff immediately produced two mohair opossums in lying and begging positions. Both had black bead eyes, a pink nose, felt ears and a long, skinny tail. It appeared overall in the Steiff catalog from 1909 to 1914. Needless to say, the opossums did not have the charm or appeal of Teddy bears, and efforts to promote this item as the next “Teddy bear” all but failed. As a result, these early opossums are amongst the most sought after non-bear items amongst Steiff collectors worldwide today. Interestingly, Steiff has yet to replicate its early opossums for collectors today.
4. Dolly Bears
An original Dolly Bear. (Photo: Christie’s)
A Steiff replica of the Dolly Bear, produced in 2013.
Steiff’s last early direct product tie to the United States presidency happened in 1912 with the election of Thomas Woodrow Wilson to the Oval Office. Unlike Roosevelt and Taft, Wilson truly did not have an animal symbol or mascot associated with him. So Steiff decided to take the matter into its own hands. To welcome President Wilson into office, Steiff designed its Dolly Bear, and launched her to the world at the Leipzig Spring Trade fair of 1913. And what was Dolly’s tie to the United States? She was produced in 25, 30 and 32 cm in colors to match the United States flag. Each model was made from mohair, five-ways jointed, and had a solid red or turquoise-blue body and limbs and a white head. Their heads were detailed with a festive and colorful neck ruff, black shoe button eyes, and brown facial stitching. Each had a “hug me” voice in its belly. Dolly bears appeared in the line through 1918; Steiff also produced a few Dolly bears with a yellow or green body and limbs during this time. According to company records, 2,621 examples of the 25-cm model were produced overall, while 2,270 examples of the 30-cm model were produced and 1,555 examples of the 32-cm model were produced.
Dolly bears launched the introduction of jewel-toned cubs into the Steiff line available to the general public. Steiff had produced red and blue bears prior to 1913, but these were special orders and samples only for important customers, including Harrods in London. Today, original Dolly bears are seldom, if ever, seen on the secondary market. However, in 2013, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Dolly, Steiff created a 1,000-piece worldwide edition in red, white, and blue of the 30-cm version of this beloved bear.
What are they worth?
As always, something is worth what someone will pay for it. Condition, rarity, and appeal play huge roles in the final estimate for vintage Steiff items on the secondary market. Original Steiff items associated with real historical events—like the U.S. presidency—usually have great appeal to collectors and this can be reflected in their valuations. However, these items appear for sale so infrequently that it is very difficult to establish tight comparison prices that account for all finds. As a result, please use this information only as a very broad guideline.
Given an item is in very good to excellent condition, with at least one Steiff ID, the Steiff collectibles mentioned above may value in the U.S. as follows:
• 1904-1910 original standard line Steiff bears: $1,500 to $25,000-plus;
• 2002 replica 1902 Bear 55 PB: $400-$750;
• 1904 original Steiff Uncle Sam Dolls: $4,000 to $6,000-plus;
• 1994 replica Steiff Uncle Sam Dolls: $150-$300;
• 1909 original Steiff opossum: In 2010, a 28-cm original Steiff opossum sold for $14,841 at auction at Christie’s in London;
• 1913 original Steiff Dolly bear: In 2003, the largest Steiff Dolly bear sold for $6,761 at auction at Christie’s in London; today’s results most likely would be as high or higher given this item’s rarity and appeal;
• 1913 replica Steiff Dolly bear: $200-$350.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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