Welcoming Spring With Steiff’s Garden Gnome Dolls

It should come as no surprise that gnomes have been part of the German toy manufacturer Steiff’s doll line for more than a century. Pictured here is Snik, one of the first gnomes created by Steiff.

There’s no denying spring is in the air! And for many people, that means it is time to start planning, tending, or enjoying their gardens.  Gnomes have been traditionally associated with gardening, especially in Germany and the United Kingdom, where it is not uncommon to see playful gnome statues in even the most formally planned and tended gardens.  Here in the US, this author loves and collects garden gnomes, and gleefully displays them outdoors throughout her tiny, urban backyard oasis. Gnomes traditionally “live” underground and are considered auspicious (and a bit mischievous), as well as essential for a successful growing season.

Many of us were introduced to the idea of these tiny, humanoid, hatted characters through the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Although gnomes and dwarfs technically are different mythical characters, the two names are often used interchangeably in reference to these sprites. The Brothers Grimm, two real German brothers who studied folklore, published their first collection of stories, Children’s and Household Tales, in 1812. The Grimms are responsible for making fairy tales like Snow White so universal.  The dwarfs did not have names in the Grimm’s 19th century book.  They were first identified individually in a 1912 Broadway play and called Blick, Flick, Glick, Plick, Snick, Whick, and Quee.  They were “rebranded” as Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey in Disney’s 1937 film. 

It should come as no surprise, given their appeal, longevity, and iconic status, that gnomes have been part of the German toy manufacturer Steiff’s doll line for more than a century.  Since its beginning in the late 1800’s, Steiff has focused its product development efforts in part around trends in popular culture and favorite fictional characters of the period. As such, here are some pre-war, petite treats that always generate huge interest amongst Steiff and doll collectors worldwide – no matter if they are gardeners or not!

Here we have a close up of Snik’s face. Believe it or not, every head, face, and beard hair was individually inserted by hand into the dolls.

Steiff’s debut gnomes were named “Snak” and “Snik.” These names were probably chosen to look and sound really similar to those named in the 1912 Broadway play, but not to incur any copyright infringements. Snak was produced in four sizes ranging from 22 to 50 cm through 1915.  Snik was also produced in four sizes ranging from 22 to 50 cm through 1921.  Both were comically proportioned, made from felt, and fully jointed.  They wore felt shorts, a cotton shirt, a leather belted felt vest, and oversized, handmade leather and wooden clogs.  Their center seamed faces were detailed with glass pupil eyes embedded in eye pockets; dimensional, smiling mouths; and long, mohair eyebrows and beards. Believe it or not, every head, face, and beard hair was individually inserted by hand into the dolls – truly giving each gnome its own look and personality! Snak wore a mohair cap while Snik’s was felt.  In 1927, Steiff updated Snik’s detailing just a bit and produced him in 25, 35, and 43 cm through 1943.  

In 2017, the Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion auction house in Germany sold two rare Steiff Snik dolls, one for $1,231 and another for $925.

Puck is probably the company’s best known gnome, given his charming looks and longevity in the line.

Steiff’s next gnome was named “Puck,” also most likely named as a nod to his cousins featured in the 1912 Broadway play. He is probably the company’s best known gnome, given his charming looks and longevity in the line.  Puck was produced in 20, 30, and 40 cm from 1914 though 1943 – almost three decades! This model was fully jointed, had large, clown-like felt hands, and very skinny legs. His center seamed face was made from felt and was detailed with shiny black eyes, a comical, round nose, an open, smiling mouth, ruddy cheeks, large ears and a very long, white mohair beard. He had proportionally large feet and wore fabric boots. His clothes, which were integral to his body, consisted of a felt jacket, a felt shirt, and cotton calico pants. The color of his clothing and footwear varied a bit over his almost thirty-year long production period. However, regardless of his birthdate, size, or configuration, one thing remained constant with Puck – all examples left the factory in Germany wearing an oversized, triangular-shaped yellow mohair cap. 

The color of Puck’s clothing and footwear varied a bit, but all examples left the factory in Germany wearing an oversized, triangular-shaped yellow mohair cap.

Given his enormous appeal, Puck was often featured in Steiff’s advertising and promotional photos, as well as store window displays. He was also integrated into a number of high end products and novelties, including several wheeled pull toy vehicles, a duck drawn wagon, and a rabbit drawn wagon.

In 2017, the Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion auction house in Germany sold two Puck dolls, one for $1,231 and another for $862.

Our final Steiff gnome today is named “Sulphur Mate.”

Our final Steiff gnome today is named “Sulphur Mate.” This fine fellow is standing, head jointed, and made primarily from felt.  His body and outfit are one in the same and made from yellow felt. His oversized slip-in shoes – which are most likely a nod to the clogs made famous by Snik and Snak – are made from orange felt.  He dons a teal colored, removable hat decorated with tan paper buttons. Its design has the look and feel of a mushroom in many ways. His darling face beams with its horizontal shaped seam, side glancing, tri-colored google-style glass cartoon eyes, a pocket-style inset mouth, and airbrushed features.  His distinctive and matching hair and beard are made from bright orange tipped mohair.  This lucky charm was produced in 14 and 25 cm from 1933 through 1936 overall.  His basic design was also repurposed as a coffee warmer in 44 cm in 1934. 

His darling face beams with its horizontal shaped seam, side glancing, tri-colored google-style glass cartoon eyes, a pocket-style inset mouth, and airbrushed features.

It is interesting to note that this “Sulphur Mate” gnome doll was one of the very last dolls designed and produced with Steiff’s traditional horizontal or vertical seam face construction.  The company’s dolls from the mid-1930’s onward all had seamless, pressed felt face assembly.


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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