Steiff’s Prewar Black Tom Cats

Steiff’s most beloved black cat pattern of all time is probably the company’s standing, arched-back “Tom Cat.”

Trick or treat! Although this expression is usually associated with our annual Halloween ritual, it also describes black cats. Unlike their calico, Maine Coon, Siamese, and other catty-cousins, black cats historically have had superstitions associated with them.  In terms of tricks, in many places throughout the world, black cats have been linked with evil omens and witches, and are synonymous with Halloween. Some people – even today – feel seeing one, or having one cross your path, means sickness or death is imminent.  On the other hand, some cultures see black cats as lucky, and as such, are clearly a treat. In much of the United Kingdom and Japan, they are said to be protective and attract wealth and happiness. But one thing IS certain about these sable sweeties. For Steiff enthusiasts, it’s always auspicious to add one of the company’s legacy black cats to their collection!  

It is interesting to note that despite their bad cat/good cat reputation, Steiff has almost continuously featured a black cat in their product line since the late 1800’s. The most beloved black cat pattern of all time is probably the company’s standing, arched-back “Tom Cat.” To celebrate Halloween in the most Steiff-y way possible, let’s take a look at three versions of the company’s “Terrific Tom” produced in the first half of the 20th century to see how the design has changed – and not – over time.   

Turn of Last Century Tom:

Here we have Steiff’s turn of the last century Tom Cat, dating from around 1905-1906.

This first Tom Cat, from the author’s collection, is unjointed and made from jet black velvet. He is super skinny and features a long, thin-as-a-rail tail. Astonishingly, he is stuffed with excelsior, an amazing feat given his scale and configuration!  He measures about 8 cm tall from his head to his toes and about 10 cm from the top of his arched back to his toes.  This example, like all of Steiff’s earliest Tom Cats, has a decidedly smiling/sinister facial construction.  His face comes to life with tiny, triangular shaped ears, black seed bead eyes backed in yellow felt, and an open, pink felt lined mouth. The lining is held in place with tiny pinkish-tan colored stitches – perhaps to resemble teeth? He also has clear, monofilament whiskers.  This Tom, as well as all of his littermates, left the factory in Giengen, Germany wearing a silken bow and bell. Overall, this earliest Steiff Tom Cat pattern was produced in 10, 14, and 17 cm from 1903 through 1919 in black velvet, and in 14 and 17 cm in white velvet from 1906 through 1908.  As such, examples may feature the company’s elephant button, blank button, or long trailing f button – or no button at all, in the case of items made in in 1903. This Tom Cat has a blank button, dating it from about 1905 to 1906.

His Story:

I had been looking for one of these for decades and could not believe my eyes when I saw it in an online auction catalog!

I was browsing an auction catalog online and came across a lot featuring two black cats.  The cataloging simply read, “Miniature Steiff black cat with arched back, together with an unlabeled example with bell; Steiff example with pink ribbon has two tags affixed – “Steiff Original Marke – Original Steiff” and “Original Steiff / 7410.00 / Made in” 6 1/2 x 1 1/4 x 4 1/2 inches.” I zoomed in on the “unlabeled” one and to my astonishment noticed it was the company’s earliest, open mouthed version.  Plus, he did indeed retain his Steiff blank button!  I had been looking for one of these for decades and could not believe my eyes.  I waited anxiously for the day of the auction and bid online. Luckily, he did not catch the eye of too many other collectors, and I won him after a few clicks of the bid button.  The auction house was not far from my home, so I went to pick him up in person. His presentation and condition were even better in real life than pictured in his listing.

“Roaring ‘20s” Tom Cat:

Tom Cat got a makeover in the 1920’s and was introduced again in 1923. This updated Steiff Tom Cat is quite the looker.

Like many of Steiff’s earliest patterns, the company’s first standing, unjointed black Tom Cat pattern got a makeover in the 1920’s and was introduced again in 1923. He was produced in 8, 10, 14, 17, 22, and 28 cm from 1923 through 1943; the two smallest sizes were made from velvet with mohair tails while the medium and larger sizes were made from mohair.  As you can see from this example from the author’s collection, this updated Steiff Tom Cat is quite the looker!  He measures about 14 cm tall from his head to his toes and about 17 cm from the top of his arched back to his toes.  His body, limbs, and head are made from shorter mohair, while his tail is made from much longer mohair. His tiny triangular shaped ears are made from velvet. He has a red embroidered nose and mouth, and three matching red claws on each foot. His teal-green and black eyes are in the slit-pupil style, and he has clear monofilament whiskers on his muzzle and forehead. He has a very serious, pensive look to him. He retains his short trailing “F” button as his Steiff ID, dating him from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s.

His Story:

He has a very serious, pensive look to him. He retains his short trailing “F” button as his Steiff ID, dating him from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s.

I can’t exactly remember why, but I was feeling sorry for myself and scrolling through the German eBay website.  I came across this cat as a buy-it-now listing, and was further tempted by it as the seller would ship to the USA. The price was a little steep, but given my mood at the time, I gave into retail therapy as a quick fix!  I pulled the trigger and purchased him.  A few weeks later he arrived from Germany.  I had never seen one of these pre-war mohair Tom Cats before in person, and was really pleased with the splurge.  It was very interesting to compare him to the more common post-war ones I had in my collection.   His grumpy face is a constant reminder of why I purchased him in the first place!

Woolen Miniature Tom Cat:

This teeny-tiny woolen miniature Tom cat appeared in the line from 1935 through 1938. Photo credit: Ruby Lane

Blink – literally – and you might have missed Steiff’s teeny-tiny black Steiff woolen miniature Tom Cat. (I did, but more about that in a bit.) Steiff’s “woolies” debuted in the 1931 Steiff catalog in the form of six simple birds. This introduction proved extremely successful, and almost immediately Steiff introduced rabbits, cats, mice, mice, monkeys, ducks and other popular species as woolen miniatures.  One of these rarities was an 8 cm black Tom Cat pictured here; the photo is from Ruby Lane.  The cat is standing and made from Nomotta wool.  He has an interior wire skeleton, allowing him to be posed a bit. His tiny face comes to life with green and black slit pupil glass eyes, a dot of red paint for a mouth, and a few clear monofilament whiskers. And like his recent relatives, he sports a prominent, bushy, upright tail.  This petite treat appeared in the line from 1935 through 1938.  As such, examples may have either a long or short trailing “f” Steiff button as part of their Steiff ID.

His Story:

Ok, everyone who’s reading this can relate to “the one that got away.” This is one of those collectors’ stories that does not end in the best way possible. And no, this woolen miniature is NOT part of my meow mix. I was looking through the Steiff treasures on the online antique site RubyLane.com.  This absolute rarity popped up on my screen as a brand-new listing. I had only seen a photo of one once in a book. As such, I went to find that reference to compare this listing to the cataloged version.  By the time I found the book and did my research, he had already sold. Ugh! My heart still hurts thinking about it.

Values:

As always, something is worth what someone will pay for it, and condition can add or subtract hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars from any given vintage plaything. Given their rarity, history, and striking good looks, Steiff’s prewar black, arched back Tom Cats are universally appealing to collectors and can trade hands at very significant prices. Given Steiff prewar Tom Cats are in clean, very good to excellent condition, with minimal playwear, and retain at least one form of ID, they may value here in the USA as follows:

  • Steiff’s earliest black velvet Tom Cats may value in the $1,000 – $5,000 range.
  • Steiff’s second quarter 20th century black Tom Cats may value in the $250 – $750 range.
  • Steiff’s 1930s era woolen miniature Tom Cats may value in the $750 – 1,500 range.

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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