Born in Giengen, Germany, Margarete was the daughter of building contractor Friedrich Steiff and his wife Maria Margarete, née Haehnle. At eighteen months, Margarete contracted a high fever that left her legs paralyzed and right arm difficult to raise. After three years, doctors finally diagnosed her with polio. Her parents were keen that she live a full life and investigated many medical treatments with little success. As a child she was taken to school in a small hand-pulled cart by her sisters and other neighborhood children. In her later reminiscences, she recalls 'All the children gathered around me and I organised games in which I was the center of attention. However, the older children often ran off and then I was left babysitting the tiny tots'
Margarete regularly attended school throughout her childhood and in spite of the pain in her right hand, went to the needlework classes of Frau Schelling where she completed her training as a seamstress at the age of 17. She occasionally worked with her sisters, who had opened a women's tailors.
She also became an accomplished zither player, teaching others to play to earn some money. Her savings allowed her to buy a sewing machine, the first owned in the town of Giengen, and this led to another opportunity to earn income. Margarete worked on trousseaus for the town folk and by her mid-twenties was making fashionable clothes and traveling to other towns to work and visit family, sending her cart ahead of her and traveling by Post-Coach.
In 1877 Margarete opened a felt store and began making felt underskirts, which had just become fashionable, for the firm of Christian Siegle in Stuttgart. She was soon able to employ people to work for her and it became a thriving business. 'At this time I came across a pattern for a toy elephant. Felt was the ideal material for this toy and the filling would be of the finest lambswool. Now I could make these as gifts for the children in the family and I tried out the patterns in various sizes'. In 1879 the US magazine Delineator published a pattern for a cloth mouse, rabbit and elephant, other animal patterns followed and the German magazine Modenwelt reproduced these patterns. Margarete made many of these toys and gave them as gifts to friends, and by 1880 she started to sell them in small numbers. In the following years she widened her range of small cloth animals based on the magazine patterns, but with small alternations to the cloth used and accessories.
In 1892 her small company applied for a Patent 'for making of animals and other figures to serve as playthings', the Patent number was DRP 66996, but this was later withdrawn when contested by another German toy manufacturer. Margarete's brother Fritz realised that there was an opportunity to sell large numbers of these toy animals and he took some samples to the market in Heidenheim, coming away with many orders. Production and turnover increased each year as did the variety of toys on offer. Pull-along and ride-on toys were also added with the development of metal frames inside the toys. By 1889 the company moved into a larger building, which had a corner shop where the toys and fabric could be displayed for sale. The words 'Felt-Toy-Factory' were painted in large letters on the outside wall. Next came a printed catalogue for customers to order from and the business grew from strength to strength.
In 1897, Margarete Steiff's creative nephew, Richard Steiff, joined the company. He had previously studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts Academy) in Stuttgart, Germany. His sketches became the basis for many different Steiff Toys.
The First Teddy Bear
Margarete Steiff made up all the samples of any new toys herself so she could be aware of any problems that might arise in production. Between 1897 and 1899 the Steiff company was designing and making 'dancing bear' toys. Rather than the familiar teddy bear, these were standing figures carrying sticks and with rings through their noses imitating the real-life dancing bears that traveled from town to town to provide entertainment at this time, or pull-along bears on wheels.
In 1902, Richard Steiff designed "Bear 55 PB" - the first soft toy with movable joints which was to become the first teddy bear.
By 1903, a large shipment of toys had been sent to a New York showroom, but there was not much interest in the plush toy bears that were displayed there. In March 1903 Richard Steiff took jointed soft toy bears to a spring fair in Leipzig and they caught the eye of an American buyer, who ordered 3000 bears. From then on, "Bear 55 PB" became a bestseller in the United States - a remarkable achievement for a small German business from the Swabian Albs. Starting in 1906, the bear became known under the name "Teddy Bear", named after the US President Theodore „Teddy“ Roosevelt.
One million teddy bears were produced by 1907.
Margarete Steiff died on 9 May 1909 just before her 62nd birthday from pneumonia. The flags in Giengen flew at half mast.
Margarete Steiff became an important figure in German female entrepreneurship. Originally from a small town in Southern Germany and living with a life-long physical disability, Steiff proved a point through founding and growing a business that continues to be recognized around the world, even long after Steiff passed away. In the literature on German entrepreneurs, she is cited as an idol for female entrepreneurship and innovation, growing her business beyong German borders.
The Steiff bear went on to become the most famous and sought after brand of teddy bears. In 1910, Steiff won the Grand Prix at the world exhibition Brussels International 1910 in Belgium.
Today, Steiff continues to be considered among the most high-quality toy manufactured in the world and older Steiff toys have become valuable collectibles.
- "Steiff - The Story". Steiff KNOPF IM OHR. April 9, 2019. Archived from the original on April 9, 2019. Retrieved April 9, 2019.
- Cieslik, Jurgen & Marianne (1989). Button in Ear. Germany: Marianne Cieslik Verlag. p. 7. ISBN 3-921844-18-5.
- Cieslik, Jurgen & Marianne (1989). Button in ear. Germany: Marianne Cieslik Verlag. p. 10. ISBN 3-921844-18-5.
- Cieslik, Jurgen & Marianne (1989). Button in Ear. Germany: Marianne Cieslik Verlag. p. 11. ISBN 3-921844-18-5.
- "Firmenhistorie - Steiff Online-Shop Deutschland". 2019. Steiff.Com. Accessed April 2, 2019. https://www.steiff.com/de-de/fascination-steiff/history.
- Cieslik, Jurgen and Marianne (1989). Button in Ear. Germany: Marianne Cieslik Verlag. pp. 26–27. ISBN 3-921844-18-5.
- Brunner, Bernd, and Lori Lantz. "Bear Substitutes." In Bears: A Brief History, 211-19. Yale University Press,2007.
- "Margarete Steiff And Her Famous Teddy Bear". 2018. Medium. Accessed April 5, 2019. https://medium.com/@cunninghamjeff/margarete-steiff-200988b277f6.
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