How a girl with polio created a global Teddy Bear empire

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1902 original Steiff Teddy Bear

The story of an extraordinary woman and a unique company

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Author’s note: This story taken from the Steiff company archive, tells the saga of a young woman diagnosed with polio in the late 1800’s. With no cure and no where to turn she learned to sew, with one hand, of course. Her small animals began as pin cushions, quickly became children’s favorite, and nature smiled on her this time. The Teddy Bear for which she became famous would come from her shop a few years later. Of course, this was a time in the world when being global was still warm and fuzzy.

1847- How it All Began

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On 24th July 1847, Margarete Steiff was born in Giengen an der Brenz as the third of four children. When she was 18 months old, she was ill with a high fever, following which her legs became paralyzed and it hurt her to use her right arm.

Three years later, a doctor in Ulm diagnosed her with poliomyelitis. The many doctor’s visits and treatments did not help; her parents grew disconsolate. What could little Margarete expect from life now? She would be dependant on the care of others for life.

But the cheerful Margarete fought for her place. She was taken to school in a hay cart by her siblings and neighbouring children, and taken upstairs to the classroom by a woman who lived near to the school.

1862 — Apprenticeship and First Steps

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In spite of the pain in her right hand, Margarete went to sewing school and at the age of 17 she completed her training as a seamstress.

Her older sisters Marie and Pauline opened a women’s tailors in 1862 in which she also worked from time to time. When Marie and Pauline left their home town around 8 years later, Margarete continued alone.

1874 — The foundations are laid — the step towards independence

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In 1874, Margarete’s father converted her parent’s house and built herself her own work room, a small tailors shop. With the first money that she earned herself, she bought her own sewing machine. She could only move the fly wheel on the right hand side with difficulty, and so without further ado the machine was reversed.

In 1877, Adolf Glatz, her cousin’s husband, advised her to take the step towards independence. Thereupon Margarete founded her own felt clothing business and successfully sold clothes and household articles which she had made. Soon she was able to employ several seamstresses. In the magazine ”Modenwelt“ (Fashion World) from December 8, 1879, Margarete saw the sewing pattern for a small stuffed elephant. Using this pattern, she made the elephant as a pin cushion, but soon the little stuffed animals became very popular as children’s toys.

1880 — Margarete Steiff GmbH is founded

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The official founding date of Steiff Manufacture was 1880. The first big seller was the elephant, which her younger brother Fritz sold at the nearby Heidenheim market. Just six years later Margarete had sold over 5,000 elephants and was now designing other stuffed animals, too. In 1890, Fritz built a house for his sister, with a flat on the first floor, designed for disabled people, and a small shop on the first floor. At the house in what is today ”Margarete Steiff Straße“ (Margarete Steiff Road) there is the sign “Filz-Spielwaren-Fabrik” (Felt Toy Factory).

In 1892 the first illustrated Steiff catalogue was released which showed the diversity of the range. In addition to elephants there were monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, mice, dogs, cats, hares and giraffes. In the catalogue was also Margarete’s motto, “Für Kinder ist nur das Beste gut genug!“ (for children, only the best is good enough!“).

One year later, on March 3rd 1893, the toy factory was entered in the trade register as ”Margarete Steiff, Felt Toy Factory Giengen/Brenz”. For the first time the toys were presented at the Leipzig toy trade fair. Margarete now employed 4 seamstresses and 10 home workers.

1902 — The Teddy bear is born … and conquers the world

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Richard Steiff, Margarete’s creative favourite nephew, entered the company in 1897. He attended the school of applied arts in Stuttgart and studied in England. His animal sketches were the basis for many Steiff creations. In 1902 he designed the “Bear 55PB” bears, the world’s first stuffed toy bears with moveable arms and legs. When searching for a suitable covering, Richard found the cuddly and good for coloring mohair plush produced by the Florweberei Schulte (Schulte pile weaving mill) in Duisburg.

Margarete herself remained skeptical, but Richard was allowed to present his bears at the Leipzig toy trade fair.

The breakthrough came when an American trader discovered the bears and ordered 3,000 of them. The bears began an unprecedented selling success in the USA from 1906 under the name of Teddy Bear — named after the American president Theodore ”Teddy“ Roosevelt.

1904 — A”Steiff — Knopf im Ohr” (Button in Ear) — a brand sign arises and an eventful life comes to an end

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In order to make their own high quality products unmistakeable, and fend off numerous cheap imitations, Franz Steiff developed the brand sign “Steiff — Button in Ear”. At the world exhibition in St. Louis, Margarete was awarded the Grand Prix, and finally in 1906 Margarete Steiff GmbH was founded, the company name which is still used today.

In 1907, 400 employees and 1,800 home workers produced 973,999 teddy bears and a total of around 1,700,000 toys. An international company arose which continually expanded its product range.

Margarete Steiff died on the 9th of May 1909 at the age of 61, following a lung infection.

This was a hard blow for the Steiff family, friends and employees. Margarete’s nephews took over the company and people from all over the world continue to dream her dream even today. Margarete Steiff created something which is larger than life.

1910 — Steiff worlds arise

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In 1910 Steiff won the Grand Prix at the world exhibition in Brussels, show pieces with a multitude of stuffed toys and animals inspired the public.

The ”Steiff Circus“ used mechanically-moved figures for the first time. One of the most successful show pieces, “Noah’s Ark”, came about four years later. Then there were hard times but not only for the company: in the hard years of the war and after, Steiff finally had to adjust their range — paper-type materials meant that the so called ”paper teddy bears“ came into existence, and toys made of wood were added to the range.

1927 — Hard times in a positive sense

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In the “Golden Twenties” there was once again a demand for fabric and plush. Steiff introduced assembly line production in order to satisfy the high demand for, above all, their stuffed dogs. The plush dog Molly went down a storm and over 500,000 were sold by 1932.

1951 — The new beginnng

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The next difficult time was during the Wold War II. After the end of the war the company restarted in 1947, and just a year later it had nearly 1,000 employees, and 5 years later twice as many. Among other things this rapid growth was due to Mecki, the mascot of a television newspaper and a figure from the puppet feature film by the Diehl brothers, which was manufactured by Steiff as a stuffed puppet from 1951.

In 1953 the Teddy bear celebrated its 50th birthday — the jubilee bear ”Jackie“ was presented for this occasion in a completely new design — as a funny bear child with a small belly button.

1980–100 years of dreams in cloth and plush

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The 80’s began with the company’s 100th year anniversary, when the Margarete Steiff Museum was opened in Giengen — a forerunner of today’s experience museum, ”The World of Steiff“. In addition, Steiff began to produce animal replicas in limited editions for their fans. ”Petsy“ — the children’s favourite captured the market and the hearts of Steiff friends around the globe.

1992 — Steiff Club

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Then, finally on the 1st of April 1992, the Steiff Club was founded for lovers and collectors of all Steiff animals, with exclusive club advantages and own club editions.

In order to be able to present their own products in the cities in an appropriate surrounding, the first Steiff Gallery was opened in Hamburg in 1997 on the anniversary of Margarete Steiff’s 150th birthday. Three years later Cologne, Munich and Dusseldorf also had their Steiff Galleries,followed by Berlin, Vienna, Nuremburg and Stuttgart. In 2003, there were openings in Kiel, Hanover, Wiesbaden, Zurich and a second Steiff Gallery in Hamburg. In 2004 a Steiff gallery opened in Bromley, London.

2005 — The new millennium

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Naturally, the success story continued into the new century, and new paths were walked. The world première of the musical ”Teddy — A Musical Dream“ took place in 2002. Also in Giengen, the home of all Steiff animals, there were things going on: the “World of Steiff” xxperience was presented in 2003 for the first time. Up until 2005 the ”World of Steiff“ experience museum was built on the company grounds, according to instructions of architect Andreas Ramseier. It is an architectural paramount achievement and offers an animated dream world for the whole family on an area of 2,400m². Just right for the 125 year company jubilee “the World of Steiff” opened its gates. The icing on the cake of the company jubilee was the costly 125 carat Teddy bear edition.

For the first time in 2006, the Steiff Summer was hosted in the company grounds in Giengen an der Brenz,a large summer festival, which is especially held for Steiff friends and families and offers a lot of fun and excitement for all age groups. By 1907, almost a million teddy bears were produced. In 2007 — exactly 100 years later — the jubilee edition “A Million Hugs” was published on this occasion.

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Author bio

Jeff Cunningham is a global leadership advocate, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Previously, he was publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of (NACD) Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), CMGI’s Myway.com, and Michael Milken’s CareerTrack; venture capital partner with Schroders, and advisor, Highland Capital.

He writes TheArtofLeadership.co for Medium and interviews mega moguls for his YouTube series, IconicVoices.TV.

He has also served as a board director and an advisor to chief executives of a number of public companies, and has served on the boards of Schindler, Countrywide, Data General and Genuity. He was chairman of four public company boards, Bankrate, EXLservice, Sapient, and Premiere Global.

Written by

Producer of Extraordinary Lives 2019 @TellyAwards for documentaries @ IconicVoices.tv; Author of Be Somebody @ jeffcunningham.com; ex-publisher @Forbes

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