A Fabulous Find–The Rarest of Rare, a Steiff Rod Bear!

Steiff’s turn of last century rod bears are unquestionably the “holy grail” for Steiff collectors.

For most vintage button-in-ear collectors, Steiff’s turn of last century “rod bears” are unquestionably the “holy grail.”  These absolute rarities, made with an internal rod-style skeleton for jointing, only appeared in the line from about 1904-1905. This jointing system shows up prominently in an x-ray, and that’s best way to confirm a bear’s internal connectors. These very early bruins were commercially produced in white or blonde mohair in two sizes:  28 cm sitting/40 cm standing and 35 cm sitting/50 cm standing.  Rod bears tend to vary a lot in their actual looks and presentation, given they are so early, made by hand, and their patterns were rapidly evolving. However, for the most part, Steiff’s rod bears share these common features:

  • They are solidly stuffed with excelsior and have football shaped bodies.
  • They have very long arms with distinctly curved paws.
  • They have felt paw pads and five claws embroidered on each paw. 
  • They have extremely long, narrow feet and a pronounced back hump.  
  • They have simple, “puppylike” faces detailed with black boot button eyes and a basic hand embroidered mouth. 
  • And in a perfect world, they retain their earliest Steiff “elephant” button in ear.  

The noses of the original rod bears were extremely labor intensive.

Steiff’s rod bears also share another distinctive feature. Their noses are made from gutta percha.  This material is a natural latex product made from the sap of the Palaquium gutta tree. Gutta percha noses were very labor intensive to produce on bears. Each one required an artisan to place individual drops of this black, sticky, rubbery substance on the tip of the bear’s muzzle until enough built up to resemble a nose. The artisan also was required to constantly shape the cooling material into a nose shape, which explains why early and original gutta percha noses often are asymmetrical and have fingerprints and nicks on them. Richard Steiff himself thought this process was way too time consuming, and insisted that the company’s bear production incorporated stitched noses from around 1905 onward.  

So you think you may have come across a rod bear, or even have one in your collection?  Here’s one low tech way to tell if you can’t get it x-rayed: feel the jointing system in its limbs.  If you take a good feel of a very vintage bear’s armpit and feel a hard, flat, round disk both in the arm and in the body where the two come together, this probably would be an example of the company’s disk jointed bears from about 1906 onward.  If you don’t feel any internal round structures where the arm and the body come together, this just may be an example of the company’s earlier rod jointed Teds. 

Steiff’s rod bears are truly blue moon finds.  But once in awhile, the stars do align.  We recently met a collector who found one in the most exciting way possible.  Here’s her story!

Worthpoint:  Can you please tell us how you first came across this wonderful Steiff find?

Several years ago, I attended the preview of a toy auction in a small town in British Columbia, Canada. As a long-time Teddy bear collector, I was pleased to see a nice selection of old and newer Teddy bears included in the sale. While previewing the bears, I was drawn to an old bear sitting quietly by himself. He had a wonderful expression on his face, with his original boot-button eyes and funny black nose! I picked him up and was surprised how solid he felt. Very firmly stuffed, with a nice hump on his back and long huggable arms; I was definitely interested in this fellow. Carefully I checked his left ear with by fingers and felt, deep inside, a small button which was not easily visible to the eye. With my “auction-face” on, I didn’t want to show my interest as there were other people studying the items up for bid that evening, I left a reserve bid on several old bears with my fingers crossed I would win at least one.

The classic Steiff button in the ear.

Worthpoint: What happened next?

To my surprise and delight I was contacted the next day and informed I had indeed won a bear! As it turned out I had won the old bear with the beautiful expression, apparently no one had noticed the button in his ear and I was the only bidder of this very old bruin!  Once I had him home I brought out my loop to view the button fully expecting to find the Steiff FF button. I looked several times, and from different angles, it was not the FF button but instead, the rare and elusive Elephant button! I had never seen one in real-life, I was in awe! What an exceptional treasure to add to my collection!

Worthpoint:  Yes, that is amazing, and I am sure anyone reading your story can relate.  But things get even better!  Tell us more.

With a bit of on-line sleuthing I felt I may indeed have a Steiff rod bear, however I was no expert and all I could be sure of was his age, based on the button, to be around 1904 -1905. I carefully put my treasure in a display case to love and admire. For many years the old fellow sat quietly in the case; I enjoyed seeing him and knowing of the secret Elephant button hidden inside his ear, I had told very few people about my treasure.

Worthpoint: He is a once in a lifetime find for sure, and it sounds like he brought you great joy.  Why are you rehoming him now?

As time passed, I recently decided to down-size my extensive Teddy bear collection and I sold a cute vintage Merrythought “Punkinhead” bear to a lovely collector in Florida. We became fast friends with our mutual Teddy bear interest and she “introduced” me to Rebekah Kaufman to assist in identifying my old Steiff bear. Once confirmed he was indeed a very rare and wonderful Steiff Rod bear, I felt it was time for him to go to a new loving home where he can be appreciated and enjoyed for many, many more years and continue to be a treasure in another Teddy bear collection.

Worthpoint:  I am certain he will find a new loving family immediately, based on his wonderful history and delightful looks and personality!  Thank you for sharing this “collector’s dream” story with us.

Watch Rebekah Kaufman below as she unboxes this fabulous rod bear!

Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.  You can follow her blog, which focuses on vintage Steiff finds, Steiff antiquing and travel adventures, international Steiff happenings, and the legacy and history of the Steiff company at http://mysteifflife.blogspot.com.  Sign up for her Steiff newsletter by contacting her directly at steifflife@gmail.com.

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