Pocket Toys: Steiff’s Oddly Marvelous Marsupials
Steiff's early 1950s 50-cm mohair Kangoo Kangaroo and her 10-cm velvet Joey.
The other day, I was talking with a friend about Steiff and the tremendous range of animal species it has so elegantly and accurately produced over the 130 year long history of the company. Just for fun, she started to challenge me, asking about relatively obscure animals . . .
Had Steiff ever made a lobster? Yes!
An okapi? Yes!
How about a kiwi? Yes again!
Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she asked me to name at least two marsupials the company had ever produced, using a in a voice that really suggested that she was about to “stump the chump.”
Little did she realize that not only did I know what a marsupial was, but that I could name at least three vintage Steiff marsupials— including one “almost famous” design intended to smooth over a presidential transition! Come take a look at Steiff’s interpretation of the world’s most interesting pouched mammals—and see what makes them as intriguing as their live counterparts!
Just to start things off in a warm and fuzzy way, it is important to know the basics about marsupials. Marsupials are a small subclass of mammals, with one key difference: all females deliver their babies very prematurely and nurture them in their cozy pouches, sometimes for up to a year. The gestation time for many marsupials is only four or five weeks, and many are born in a somewhat embryonic state the size of a jellybean! All young marsupials are called “joeys,” regardless of genus or species. Today, there are only 344 species of marsupials on the planet; the vast majority of them live in Australia, New Guinea and the surrounding island nations. Only one marsupial calls North America home, but much more on that later!
Probably the best-known “pocketed pretties” are kangaroos, so let’s hop to it and take a look at Steiff’s long history of kangaroo production. Kangaroos were one of the very earliest animals produced by Steiff. As a matter of fact, the first one was produced in 1897—only five years after the company published its first catalog in 1892 and nine years before the introduction of the button-in-ear trademark in late 1904. This kangaroo was standing, unjointed, made from short pile plush, and 28 centimeters tall. In 1902, this similar pattern was also produced in felt in 12 cm, in velvet in 12 and 17 cm, and as a 12-cm pincushion. These kangaroos were very basic in design and in some ways really looked more like little mice or rats than the bouncing beauties intended.
From the early 1950s: Steiff's 10-cm velvet Joey, which came with the 50-cm Kangoo Kangaroo.
That possible case of “mistaken identity” did not last long. In 1906, Steiff updated its original kangaroo pattern to make it more lifelike; the new model was now five-ways jointed, had a robust curved tail, and a much more detailed face. The new kangaroo was produced in 35-, 43-, 50- and 120-cm and was available through 1917.
It was not until 1929 that Steiff’s kangaroos were again updated; many of these new design features remained on kangaroos through the 1970s. Most importantly, this late 1920s pattern finally included a pouch and a joey! These pre-war models were made from mohair and were manufactured in 35, 43, and 50 cm through 1939. The little joey was 10 cm and also made from mohair; interestingly, his construction consisted just of a head and body, no limbs at. He looked like an adorable bottle-stopper with a mouse-like head.
Fast forward to 1953; the factory had reopened after the war and Steiff was jumping up and down to rebuild its toy empire. They introduced Kangaroo “Kangoo,” who was very similar to the prewar design. Kangoo was made through 1966 in 14, 28, 50 and 65 cm. She was in a “begging” position, made from mohair, had golden airbrushing on her back and sides, and black airbrushing on her paw tips, ears and face. The larger versions were arm jointed; all sizes had a pouch. The 14- and 28-cm Kangoos had plastic joeys, the 50-cm size had velvet joeys and the 65-cm size had mohair joeys; all the joeys were “full body.”
A newer but quite similar kangaroo design named “Linda” took Kangoo’s place in the Steiff line from 1967 through 1974; it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between Kangoo and Linda.
Some collectors would argue that the next Steiff marsupial is of such “koala-ty” that he truly should be in a class by himself. Steiff koalas truly are “rare bears” and technically not really bears at all! The first and most famous Steiff koalas appeared in the line from 1955 through 1961 only; they were produced in 12, 22 and 35 cm. A very limited number were made during this time as well, helping to explain why they so seldom are seen on the market today.
Steiff’s koalas were very well-made and had a distinctive facial look and construction. All sizes were made from tan and light tan mohair. The smallest one was head-jointed while the medium and largest sizes were five-ways jointed. They all had pudgy, yet well-defined felt hands and feet that were gently airbrushed for authenticity. Their faces were all detailed with black and brown pupil eyes, a small black-stitched mouth, and an inlaid, flat-grey felt nose. Their ears were semi-circular and lined in long, fluffy mohair. Overall, these rare first Steiff koalas had a precious yet exotic look to them, perhaps why they are so favored by collectors all around the world today.
Two 12-cm Steiff Koalas from the mid-1950s; note the distinct appearance of each, based on their complex facial construction.
A close-up of 12-cm Steiff Koala's face and his inset felt nose.
Since 1970, Steiff has regularly featured koalas in its line, including a popular pair of 12- and 22-cm dralon joeys who were available through 1975. Most of these models were designed as soft playthings for children; at this point, none really have caught on with vintage collectors.
Our last Steiff marsupial is the only one that can be found in real life here in North America. He is none other than the opossum, sometimes referred to as a “possum.” Possums can be as small as a mouse or large as a cat—and every size in between. The word opossum comes from the Algonquian word meaning “white beast.”
Because possums are nocturnal, many people seldom if ever come across them—much like their Steiff counterparts! And Steiff possums are exceptionally rare; only two models were made at the turn of last century, and only one modern model has been produced in the last 20 years. But first a little (presidential) history.
Almost everyone knows that the Teddy bear was named for President Theodore Roosevelt and his refusal to shoot a bear cub on a 1902 hunting trip in Mississippi. Clifford Berrymore’s cartoon depicting this event was instrumental in helping to launch Teddy bears as a beloved plaything all over the world at the turn of the 20th century. When William Taft, whose nickname was “Billy Possum,” became president in 1909, many people thought that the opossum would take the place of the Teddy bear as a beloved plaything and become nationwide mascot of good will. In response to the news from Washington, Steiff produced two mohair opossums. The first was a lying, unjointed version in 12, 14 and 17 cm; it was in the line from 1909 through 1913. The second was a jointed, begging version in 17, 22 and 28 cm; it was in the line from 1909 through 1914. Both had black bead eyes, a pink nose, felt ears and a long skinny tail.
It should come as no shock that an opossum just didn’t have the charm and appeal of the Teddy bear and all efforts to produce and distribute opossum-themed playthings failed miserably. These early, vintage Steiff opossums are extraordinarily rare and demand astronomical prices when they do come on the market.
Needless to say, you might need a “pouch” full of money or two to bring an early Steiff marsupial into your collection, as they are comparatively quite expensive. . .
Kangaroos: Depending on condition, early turn of last century kangaroos may value from $1,000 to $1,500. Prewar kangaroos with pouches and joeys may value in the $750 to $1,200 range. Postwar Kangoos and Lindas are a bit more common and can value from $75 to $400.
Koalas: Depending on condition, the smallest mohair vintage koalas may value from $150 to $300, the medium ones from $250 through $400, and the largest ones north of $500.
Opossums: In October of 2010, a 28-cm Steiff opossum from the “Billy Possum” era sold at auction at Christie’s for close to $15,000. Initial estimates valued it in the $4,800 to $6,300 range.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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