Steiff Woolies – An Iconic Steiff Design
Woll-Hase” or woolen rabbits. Please also note the original attached price tag still on the larger bunny’s foot . . . she was $2 at Bloomingdale’s in 1967, which translates into about $13 today. Also pictured is the Steiff woolie and mohair skunk from 1954-1978.
Is it possible to hold the whole world in your hand? Well, yes, if you believe the lyrics to a well-known American spiritual song . . . or you are a Steiff collector! The Steiff Company of Giegen, Germany, is probably best recognized as the inventor of the Teddy bear as we know him today. However, like the iconic Lulac animals (“Long-Legged Lovelies: Steiff’s Iconic Lulac-Style Animals”) that debuted in the 1950s, Steiff has introduced many other patterns and ideas that are distinctly Steiff and important in the discussion of the evolution of toy design.
One of these “smaller” breakthroughs is the creation and production of palm-sized woolen miniatures. These came about as a product line to target small spaces and even smaller budgets. Woolen miniatures were just that—pocket-sized, playful animals originally made from Nomotta wool, a dense natural fiber with the richness of alpaca. Many Steiff enthusiasts caught the “collecting bug” from the woolen miniature line as their “relatively” low price made them more accessible than their higher priced Teddy and animal cousins. The “woolies,” as they were endearingly called, were often arranged by collectors with other animals and seasonal decorations in holiday tabletop and fireplace mantle vignettes.
Woolies debuted in the 1931 Steiff catalog in the form of six simple birds; each item was a different color and was produced in 4 and 8 centimeters. This introduction proved extremely successful, and almost immediately Steiff introduced rabbits, cats, mice, mice, monkeys, ducks and other popular species as woolen miniatures. The vast majority of these tiny treasures were in the 5- to 15-cm size range. Despite their proportions, most had jointed heads and, where appropriate, charming details that included tiny metal legs; felt beaks, wings and ears; colorful slippers; and headwear, including bonnets, top hats and lacy veils. Steiff produced these woolen miniatures pre-war through 1943. A pre-war woolie in very good to excellent condition with Steiff identification can value as much as $250 or more, depending on the model.
Post war, Steiff began producing woolies again in 1949; resuming the manufacture of some of the more popular earlier models—like the robin, green woodpecker, finch, blue tit, sparrow and rabbit—and introducing some brand new breeds as well. These newbies included owls, hedgehogs and penguins. Steiff also got a little creative with the woolies, manufacturing hanging mobiles made from woolies in the late 1960s through the mid ’70s. These were made from three, four or five woolie animals suspended from clear monofilament wires; Steiff produced mobiles featuring seagulls, ravens, bats, hummingbirds and coral reef fish. These are especially collectible as they are quite fragile and very few remain intact today. Around the same time as the mobiles, Steiff also experimented with woolies by combining them with mohair features. Two examples of these include a 6-cm. woolie skunk with a black and white wire reinforced posable mohair tail and a 5-cm. squirrel with a brown posable tail.
An assortment of Steiff woolie birds, most from the 1950s and early ’60s. The tiny duck up front is 4 centimeters; she is from the late 1960s or early ’70s and one of the smallest Steiff items to sport a Steiff button.
Steiff woolen miniatures appeared in the catalog though the early 1980s; after that, demand decreased and it became too labor intensive and expensive to produce them. Steiff subsequently dropped them from the line.
It is interesting to note that a handful of woolen miniatures are perhaps the only items in the entire Steiff history of production that did not leave the factory with a “button in ear.” Even birds, which clearly lack ears, had a button securing their label around their leg. Woolie ladybugs and hedgehogs do not, and never had, Steiff buttons. There was simply no place to attach them. But their look, feel and manufacturing make them undoubtedly Steiff.
Even though it has been close to 30 years since their production, Steiff’s woolen miniatures remain extremely popular with collectors of all ages. And it is easy to see why, as their appeal and charm more than makes up for their petite presence.
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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