Why Steiff is a World Class Brand
Margarete Steiff. Photo from the Steiff Archives and Steiff North America.
There’s something simply magical about the Teddy bears, dolls, and animals produced by the German toy company, Steiff. They are the “Tiffany” of toys; the “Cadillac” of collectibles; and the “Prada” of playthings. Toy enthusiasts inevitably, and instinctively, search for the company’s exclusive “button in ear” branding whenever stumbling upon a vintage soft toy at a flea market, boot sale, or antique shop. And a gift of Steiff is not just a “run of the mill” present – it is the giver’s way of indicating how important, and special, both the recipient and the giving moment are. No other toy company shares these distinctions. So just what makes Steiff such a popular, collectible, and exceptional brand today? Yes, the company’s designs, quality, and materials are obviously first class all the way. But here are five lesser known factors that also contribute to its ongoing world-class status.
- Steiff Founder and Her Philosophy
Steiff was founded by Margarete Steiff (1847-1909) in Giegen, Germany in the late 1800’s. Margarete was an extraordinary woman in many ways. She was from a tiny, rural, unsophisticated southern Germany town. She contracted polio at the age of two, and suffering lifelong leg and arm paralysis as a result. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, she remained eternally optimistic, never took “no” for an answer, and founded her own felt garment company around 1877. In 1880, she saw a pattern for an elephant pincushion in a woman’s magazine. She made a number of these pincushions out of her felt scraps, and gave them to local children as playthings. And did they love them! Deciding that sewing soft toys was more fun than making clothing, she changed her business focus to entirely toy manufacturing in the late 1880’s. The rest is history. Her own motto, which remains the company’s guiding principal today, was, and is, “Only the Best for Our Children.” These humble beginnings help drive and guide the company on a daily basis, and are instrumental in the company’s success and reputation today.
Steiff, early on, recognized the importance of partnering with larger retailers and distributers with stellar, well established reputations to insure their international business growth and success. For example, here in the USA, as early as 1903, the company had a relationship with of Geo. Borgfeldt & Company. This important and influential company imported European dolls, toys, figurines, and novelty items for distribution to the American market. In 1906, Steiff’s Teddy bears and animals were featured at the numerous high-end toy shops owned by the Schwarz brothers. And in Europe, Steiff playthings, including exclusive editions, were featured at on the shelves of Harrods in London in the early 1900’s. Today, the company’s collectible lines still continue to be featured in high-end stores including Saks Fifth Avenue in the US, Hamley’s in the UK, and Galeria Kaufhof in Germany.
A 1935 FAO Schwarz window display. Photo from The Museum of the City of New York.
- Manufacturing Resiliency
Things have not always been easy for Steiff over the years. Giegen is a remote town without many natural resources or a huge working population. The expression, “You can’t get there from here” sums up its location. Southern Germany was in the crosshairs of great conflict during both world wars, and Germany faced suffocating inflation in the early 1920’s. Despite these and other hardships, the company always “made lemonade when handed lemons” in order to remain viable.
For example, to establish a robust workforce at the turn of last century, the company started a “homeworkers” program. This allowed seamstresses from surrounding towns to sew bears at home at their convenience. Representatives from Steiff would drop off raw materials and in turn pick up partially sewn bears at the homeworker’s residences, greatly expanding Steiff’s manufacturing output. And just how successful was this program? In 1907, the company produced and exported nearly one million Teddy bears to fulfill its incoming orders.
A little more than a decade later, right after World War I, traditional soft toy making materials like mohair and felt were simply not available. In response, the company worked with its fabric manufacturing partners to create a plush fabric made from natural wooden fibers instead of wool. They also created a robust line of wooden toys in the late 19-teens as timber was local and plentiful. The company successfully integrated alternative fabrics, including wool plush, artificial silk plush, stockinette, and linen, into their standard line products just before, and just after, World War II. And from the late 1940’s through 1950, again facing harsh material shortages, the company emphasized extraordinary airbrush detailing over fabrics on its early export lines.
Silk Plush trout from the author’s collection; this early postwar US edition is 40 cm and was made in 1950 only; it features gloriously hand airbrushed detailing.
- Generational Appeal
Unlike most other toy companies, many collectors today “inherited” their love of the brand, and perhaps elements of their collection, through relatives. Steiff truly transcends generations, and is a bridge between children and parents, and often grandparents. This is especially true with collectors with Germanic heritage. Global geo-political realities are also in part responsible for the company’s transgenerational appeal. In the early 1950’s, Steiff put enormous emphasis on creating a full and new range of irresistible, high quality “pocket sized” pets, farm, zoo, and jungle animals. The strategy behind this was that soldiers from all over the globe, stationed in Germany post World War II, would be looking for small, easily portable German souvenirs to bring back to their home countries when they were done with their service commitments. This proved extremely successful. Today, many of these 1950’s-era homecoming tokens – almost 70 years onward – form the core of beloved family Steiff collections here and abroad.
Small postwar Steiff dogs from the author’s collection.
- Skin in The Game
Steiff keeps things real by having skin in their own game. The company is still family owned and managed, now by Margarete’s fourth and fifth generation descendants. Given that most family businesses do not survive beyond the third generation, this is quite extraordinary. The family clearly understands how important the Steiff brand is in Germany – where it enjoys 95% brand recognition. For example, new babies are often welcomed with a gift of a Steiff toy. This author heard directly from a pediatrician that tiny Steiff Teddies are placed face down on the incubators of premature babies born in Germany as a way to encourage them to grow and thrive. And the Steiff museum, a family friendly destination located on the original Steiff campus, was constructed to welcome enthusiasts from all over the world, as well as reflect the company’s significant and far reaching cultural contributions. The Steiff family’s commitment to the importance of the brand is palpable and energizing, and it is clear that the international collecting community is very grateful for their interest and passion.
Steiff museum. Photo from www.freizeitparks.de.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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