Margarete Steiff

Margarete Steiff

The history of Margarete Steiff GmbH, the famous toy company, started in a family sewing room and came to dominate the quality cuddly toy market. The make is famous, not just for the quality of their collectible

toys but for their trademark 'button in the ear' which celebrates its centenary this year.

Single vision

Margarete Steiff was a remarkable woman full of courage, determination and vision who overcame her disability and the prejudice of the time to found Margarete Steiff GmbH in 1880. Margarete was born in Giengen in 1847, near Stuttgart in Germany. When she was 18 months old she contracted polio, leaving both her legs paralysed and her right arm severely weakened. She had to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

In 1866, Margarete began dressmaking and soon became an expert seamstress, receiving commissions throughout the neighbourhood. By 1877, she had opened a dressmaking shop in her home town  where she designed, sewed and sold felt     garments. Her new business, the Felt Mail Order Co., was an immediate success, and soon she was able to employ a few people.


 Her disability made travel to European fashion shows and trade fairs difficult and she relied upon magazines to keep abreast of developments within the industry - the most popular German magazine was Modenwelt. In early 1880, she came across a pattern in this magazine for a toy elephant and started making these little felt animals to be used as toys or pincushions. Her delighted friends and family encouraged her to consider opening her own felt store, and that year Margarete Steiff GmbH was founded. The first Steiff toy was the simple elephant created from a magazine pattern.

Felt menagerie

Margarete began to produce other felt animals including dogs, cats, horses, rabbits and pigs. Demand for these appealing new toys swept throughout Giengen and the quantities soon became too great for the small felt shop to store. In 1866, she sold 5,066 felt elephants as well as hundreds of the other animals and space became an issue. In 1892, the company produce its first catalogue offering an overview of the entire range and which already contained the motto, "Only the best is good enough for our children" - a motto still used today.


Family ties

In 1897, the company had a stand at the Leipzig Toy Fair, regarded as the most important trade fair of the toy industry. That year was to witness another vital development in the company's history when Richard Steiff, Margarete's nephew, joined after completing his studies at Stuttgart Art School. He represented the company at the Leipzig Fair.

Richard had already established a strong relationship with his aunt, who appreciated and admired his creative ability and perfectionism. Richard was to become, after his aunt, the second most influential figure in the toy industry,and the most important figure in the history of Steiff's most famous product: the teddy bear.

His love of real bears made him determined to design a toy bear that would be attractive and appealing to children. He studied the bear in great detail and made numerous sketches of the bears at Stuttgart Zoo, as well as the travelling circuses and animal shows. In the last years of the 19th century, Richard Steiff designed a number of bears that, positioned on all fours and set on cast iron wheels, were meant to be ridden or pulled. He also produced bears that stood   upright. These models gave the bears movement that matched the real animals - an innovative idea at the time.


Bear necessities

In 1902, Richard Steiff created the very first string-jointed bear - the first such toy in the world - which was called Bar 55 PB and was shown for the first time at the 1903 Leipzig Toy Fair.
At the Fair Hermann Berg, chief buyer for the New York wholesalers George Borgfeldt, was shopping for  something new and visited the Steiff stand - where he ordered 3,000 bears.

Moving up

To accommodate the rapid growth of the company, a revolutionary glass and steel factory was erected in 1903, close to the original Felt Store in Giengen, and is still used today.  Richard, a perfectionist and precisionist, was not totally satisfied with his first designs of a jointed bear, and continued to develop his patterns. By 1905, Richard's bear had reached his journey to perfection with the introduction of disc joints and the bear has remained almost unchanged. Richard's 'perfected' bear received unparalleled popularity and in 1907 alone, Steiff produced 974,000 bears, all by hand, to meet with international demand.


On May 9th, 1909, shortly before her 62nd birthday, Margarete Steiff passed away. The family and employees went into mourning, production was halted for the very first time and the flags in Giengen flew at half-mast. Her nephews, Richard and Franz, took over the company and propelled Steiff to further success.

Ear marked

Steiff had the foresight to apply a trademark to its products that would easily distinguish their creations from competitors. Franz Steiff devised the idea of attaching a small nickel-plated button to the left ear of every product - a 'Button in Ear'. Up until this point little card tags were used, fastened to the body or clothing of the toys. The card tag was printed with an elephant with a raised trunk in the shape of an 'S' for Steiff, but such tags could be easily torn and a more permanent trademark was needed.

 A button embossed with the elephant and his already well-established 'S'shaped trunk was chosen and introduced on 1st November 1904. The 'elephant' Button-in-Ear became the symbol of Steiff, a genuine mark of quality. The ingenious trademark also became the envy of many and was soon being imitated by European and US manufacturers, provoking a series of legal battles - which Steiff won.

The elephant button heralds the introduction of 'Button-in-Ear', a trademark that is now recognized as one of the most famous created in the 20th century. Used for one year alone, the elephant button played a hugely significant role within an enterprise that developed into the world's most famous soft toy company and launched a trademark that has come to symbolize the finest quality in toys.

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