Treasures from the Vault: Steiff Bears

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Recently, the United States Post Office released some limited edition Ellsworth Kelly postage stamps. Lauren Wolfer, the Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives here at FWMoA, made a special trip down to the post office to purchase a book of them. When I asked her who she was going to send letters to she said, “No one.” I was confused; they’re stamps, you use them to mail envelopes. She replied, “No, these are collectibles”.

Three stuffed bears sit next to each other.
Why would an art museum have a collection of stuffed bears? Steiff, German. Teddy Bear. Mohair, cotton, wood, & glass, 1982-1984 & 1988. Museum Purchase. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The art collection at any museum is comprised of so called “collectible” art, or items that are worth far more than they were originally sold for because of their rarity or due to popular demand. An artist only makes one copy of a painting, for example. Not only do we house collectible artworks at FWMoA, we also have a toy collection. Now, I bought American Girl dolls as a kid, and frequently visited Build-A-Bear workshop (it was founded in St. Louis so I was buying local) but I never considered these items collectibles, though original American Girl dolls are today! Despite the fact that I walk past our toy display cases all the time, I’ve never thought of them  as “treasures”, per se, more fun items for kids to look at during a tour. So, what makes the toys in our collection collectible?

Though we have a diverse range of toys, my favorites are the 12 Steiff Teddy Bears. A stuffed animal line you might be familiar with, as the company is still producing stuffed animals of all kinds for children, it was founded by Margarete Steiff in western Germany in 1879. Her creation of an elephant pincushion eventually led to the first production of the iconic Teddy Bear in 1902. First sketched by Margarete’s nephew, Richard, the “Bear 55PB” included movable arms and legs. He discovered the soft but durable mohair fabric for the body of the bear. In 1906, Steiff saw unprecedented sales of their bear in America, under the title of the Teddy Bear, named after President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.

Born in 1874, Margarete suffered a childhood illness that left her wheelchair bound and with pains in her right hand, now known as poliomyelitis. Despite the difficulty in using her right hand, she completed her training as a seamstress at 17 and worked with her older sisters in their shop before striking out on her own. She eventually earned enough to purchase her own sewing machine and in 1877 she founded her own felt clothing business and sold handmade clothes and household articles. Her transition to stuffed animals was inspired by the December 8th, 1879 issue of Modenwelt, or Fashion World, and the sewing pattern inside for an elephant. Realizing that children enjoyed playing with the pincushion as a toy, she created more and in 1880 founded Steiff Manufacture. Originally sold in her hometown market, in 1893 her creations debuted at the Leipzig toy trade fair and included an array of animals. Steiff entered the international market with the creation of the Teddy Bear in 1902. Have a look at the teddy bears below: can you tell they are all made by the same company? What characteristics do the bears share?

Steiff, German. Teddy Bear. Mohair, cotton, wood, & glass, 1982-1984 & 1988. Museum Purchase. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Today, Steiff is one of the world’s premier manufacturers of high-end toys and collectibles. What makes them a collectible? An artwork through their craftsmanship, they are one of the few luxury toy brands on the market. Just like the post office and their limited edition stamps, Steiff also creates limited edition bears and other animals, increasing the rarity of some models. All of their stuffed animals are subjected to meticulous testing and inspection; adhering to a “Purity Law” whose standards are set above all prescribed international controls and tests. In fact, each animal is independently checked. Often handed down as family heirlooms, this has aided in their status as collectibles. Not just simply bears, many of the animals in limited edition runs are characters or for special occasions, like the holiday bear in our collection.

This bear is dressed for Christmas as an elf, complete with pointed hat and bells.
Steiff, German. Teddy Bear. Mohair, cotton, wood, & glass, 1988. Museum Purchase. T15.101. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Designed from animals in nature, products start as prototypes or samples. Like a study or sketch for a painting, the animal prototypes are copied as exactly from nature as possible and used to create a pattern. The pattern is transferred onto the reverse side of the mohair fabric and seamstresses then produce the body shell from the individual parts. They are stuffed with wood shavings and synthetic stuffing material that is blasted into the sewing shell using pressurized air. If you’ve visited a Build-A-Bear, you’ve seen this step happen at the “Stuff Me” station. Completed when the dark eye buttons are placed and fastened, Steiff products receive the trademark button in their ear following their final check.

To combat imitation products, Franz Steiff, Margarete’s nephew, developed the brand sign “Steiff—Button in Ear”. You can see the ear button on each of our stuffed bears. It doubles as both a trademark, to recognize a genuine Steiff product, and as a protection label from counterfeiters. This branding has also helped to cement them as collectible items. Since 1926, all products receive the ear button and additional labels made of thick paper attached to the chest. Though the labels have changed over the years, the placement has remained as a seal of high quality construction pursuant to the Purity Law. Like an artist signature, these trademarks ensure buyers know it is a genuine Steiff product and not a forgery.

Steiff, German. Teddy Bear. Mohair, cotton, wood, & glass, 1988. Museum Purchase, T15.105a&b. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Perusing Christie’s Auction House the other day, a limited edition Steiff Harlequin Teddy Bear was selling for GBP 46,850, roughly US $59,000. A vintage hare sold for US $100,000. Despite these prices, Steiff’s founding principle remains outlined in their motto: Fur Kinder ist nur das Beste gut genus (For children, only the best is good enough). Though collector’s items, their bears continue to sell today to children internationally. A model in craftsmanship, Steiff’s products underscore the concept that “anything can be art”—including a child’s beloved stuffed bear—if created with intent and meaning. What artworks, stuffed or painted, are being made today that may be collectibles in the future? Only time will tell.

Interested in seeing our Toy Collection? Visit FWMoA

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