Appolonia Margarete Steiff, formally known as ‘Margarete Steiff’, but most affectionally as ‘Gretle’, was born on 24th July 1847, in Giengen in southern Germany. At a young age Margarete contracted Polio, leaving her right arm hurt and legs paralyzed meaning she was wheelchair bound. With a passion for sewing, Margarete attended sewing school to become a seamstress, giving her a difficult education because of her disability. After leaving school Margarete started to play the Zither, (a string instrument) this aided with the development of her right hand.
In 1874, Margaretes family converted their home into a small tailors shop, and with the first earnings Margarete bought her own sewing machine. Working there, but still striving for independence Margarete founded her own felt clothing business, which successfully sold clothes and household items. With her business growing Margarete could soon afford to employ several seamstress’s.
In 1879 Margarete came across a design for an small cloth elephant in a fashion magazine “Modenwolt” (Fashion World), magazines like such, were crucial reading for any entrepreneur in her field. Margarete started to make these elephants as pin cushions, but then started to create more for children’s toys. From this time on Margarete continued to make felt clothing (her main income) but she also made the little elephants, 5,000 were sold in the next six years. With Margarete designing more and more children’s toys, in 1892, Margarete was able to produce her very first Steiff catalogue, which included monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, mice, dogs, and cats.
Richard Steiff, (who was Margaretes nephew, was studing applied arts in Stuttgart) created many designs for the Steiff animals, joined the company in 1897, and designed the first Teddy Bear shortly after. This was named the “Bear 55PB” which meant that it was 55cm, made from mohair plush, and bar jointed. This was the first ever Teddy Bear, and it also had moveable limbs making it a huge step forward in children’s toys. Whilst Margarete remained skeptical, Richard took the bear to a toy trade fair, where the bear was noticed by an American trader. To Richards delight 3,000 where ordered and shipped to America, where they adopted the name Teddy Bear, they were named after the current President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.
To ward off competitors and to build a worldwide brand, Margarete Steiff GmbH was made, each Steiff toy had its own seal of approval (a button in its ear), and the company sign was made “Steiff- Knopf im Ohr” (Button in Ear).
She would have been very proud. And the founder of the company and Steiff legend, Margarete Steiff, surely would have given her heartfelt thanks to all the Steiff employees. She would have thanked them for making company history as well as the entire world of stuffed animals for one hundred years since her death on May 9, 1909. She would have thanked them for keeping her dream alive in every Steiff animal that leaves Giegen an der Brenz to go out into the wide world.
Because you can see it in the expression of every Steiff animal or Teddy bear – that special glow, the joy; Margarete Steiff’s unbridled, creative spirit. Her extraordinary ideas. Her human as well as entrepreneurial courage. Her legendary drive. Her unbroken, positive energy, her goodness, warmth and affection.
Despite debilitating illness that afflicted her as a child and was a part of the rest of her life, she never forgot one invaluable thing: being a child. The ability to always go through life with eyes and ears open – and the greatest gift to always be able to recognise the beauty, the enriching and the uplifting in every minute detail or moment. Her spirit continues to live on even today – one hundred years after Margarete Steiff’s death. It lives on in the loving expression in the eyes of every Steiff Teddy bear. You can feel it in his arms stretched out for a big, heartfelt hug. You can see it in the friendly face of every Steiff animal that makes the journey into a child’s playroom or in the home of an enthusiastic young-at-heart Steiff fan and collector.
The world may change so quickly and in so many ways – yet one thing will always remain the same:
Every Teddy bear and every animal that leaves the Steiff Company that is so rich in tradition homage to an extraordinary woman whose credo is still the maxim for the worldwide business concern Steiff today: Only the best is good enough for our children.
Margarete Steiff – A Biography
Appolonia Margarete Steiff was born in Giengen Germany on the 24th July 1847. She was the third child in a family with four children. The Steiff family consisted of the two parents, Margaretes two older sisters and her younger brother.
Margarete Steiffs father, Friedrich Steiff was a master builder in Giengen and her mother Maria Margarete Steiff, ran the household and supported her husband in his his work.
Margarete Steiff contracted polio at just 18 months old, confining her to wheelchair for the rest of her life. This is and was of course a terrible tragedy for anyone to endure, especially in the 19th century. this meant that Margarete Steiff mother would have to care for her for the rest of her life. Margarete would never have been able to take on the role of housewife and mother and at this time in history, seemed to have no prospects for the future.
The apparently helpless margarete Steiff had other ideas. She had a very cheerful and positive outlook on life, this made her very popular. She always wanted to be involved with in any outdoor activities whatever the weather and was always asking friends and family to carry her outside even during winter months.
Margarete Steiffs family was very close and loving, she was able to stay with various family members and even neighbours throughout the year in order to give her immediate family a break from her care.
When the time came for Margarete Steiff to start school, her family became very concerned that the organisation needed at the time to send such a disabled person to school would make it impossible for Margarete to get a proper education. To their delight this turned out to be much more simple than they had feared due to the amazing community spirit in Giengen, a quality which Steiff members credit to this day. Margarete Steiff was accompanied by neighbour children to school as well as her sisters. A family friend who lived near her school would carry young Margarete up the school steps.
Though her work was above average, Margarete Steiff, like most children spent her free time playing with other children wherever possible. As an extremely creative person she spent hour designing games or planning playful activities so that she could take part.
Margarete Steiff very quickly unearthed her most important natural gift as this early time in her childhood. She learned how to talk to people in a way that made them want to do what she wanted.
Margarete Steiff looked after young children while their mothers work at work in order to help re-pay all the people who had helped her throughout her life. She was hard working and unspoiled.
Margarete Steiff underwent unsuccessful surgery on her legs when she was under 10 years old. This was a traumatic experience but one that made her mature as a person. It was after her recovery that she expressed her wish to attend sewing school. Friedrich Steiff was initially against the idea, afraid that she would fail and that this would add to the disappointment of the unsuccessful operation. Despite this the youngest girl in the Steiff family asserted herself and show her parents that they had once again underestimated her ability.
Although at first it too Margarete Steiff a long time to finish her work, she also had to ask for help from the other Steiff women to complete all of it in time, she became a brilliant seamstress after a few years.
Keen to overcome her limitations and broaden her horizons Margarete Steiff also learned to play the zither, a guitar-like instrument where the strings do not extend beyond the sounding box. She became able to give lessons on the use of this instrument in later years.
At the age of 17 Margarete was forced to come to terms with the fact that her legs would never work and that she could never recover from the illness that had plagued her childhood. this focussed her on a career in sewing, one that she pursued with absolute determination. In 1874 Friedrich Steiff converted the ground floor of their house, converting the study into a dressmakers workshop.
Together with her sisters Marie and Pauline Steiff, Margarete began to perform sewing work at home. the workshop became well known in Giengen and the three young Steiff ladies became the first people in the town to buy their own sewing machine.
The list of customers for Steiff dresses became longer and longer. Although Margarete made all types of dresses, she much preferred making children’s clothing.
Margarete Steiff – A Biography Pt. 2
As a young adult Margarete Steiff had started a dressmaking company with her two older sisters. This was started in a converted study on the ground floor of the family home. After her two older sisters married, she was the only Steiff still dressmaking. A manufacturer at a local felt factory Wilhelm Adolf Glatz married into the Steiff family and employed Margarete. This family connection allowed her to still work from her home and employ assistants to replace her two sisters. Wilhelm Glatz was a distinguished businessman, who is credited with encouraging Margarete to run her own business.
Wilhelm and Margarete Steiff were a successful combination as the felt produced at Wilhelm’s factory was used to create ladies petticoats and children’s coats. Sales increased year on year. This transformed the first floor of the Steiff family home into a little factory.
Over the years Margarete’s brother Fritz Steiff became father to six sons and of course Margarete was the favourite Aunt.
Members of the Steiff family have always noted the special relationships Margarete created with the children of her family. She seemed to have a gift for using humour to make children more at ease. This family atmosphere permeated throughout the little factory and the Steiff home. It has been noted that working there was like working with your best friends.
In 1880 the story of Steiff as a company really began. Margarete Steiff herself noticed a felt elephant in a fashion magazine and decided to make eight to give as Christmas presents. These were of course extremely beautiful and were gratefully received by all 8 recipients.
These hand made felt elephants soon became the talk of the factory floor. Everyone wanted one of Margarete’s little creations. This prompted the elephant to become a stock item at the factory. Elephants were created whenever demand for dressed left sufficient time.
Margarete’s brother Fritz Steiff came up with an idea to sell them at the market in Heidenheim, two sacks of the animals were sent with him to use in this experiment.
Soft toy animals had never been invented at this point, thus they were an instant success and completely sold out.
As Margarete clearly had a talent for design as well as production, she was asked to create other soft toy animals. She created a kitten, lifelike dogs and a little pink pig. The Steiff family workshop became a “factory for felt articles and toys”.
Fritz Steiff continued to be the one to inspire his sister to create new and innovative designs. He arranged to exhibit the first Steiff articles in a display of export samples in Stuttgart in 1883. Every year the business expanded rapidly prompting new designs and new models. This little company quickly became more important to Margarete and Fritz than the dressmaking. To give an example of the rapid growth Margarete invested 1460 marks for felt in 1886, 3700 marks in 1888 and 5070 marks in 1890.
Fritz Steiff took over his fathers building company in 1888 and soon persuaded Margarete to move from her cramped little factory in the Steiff home into a house with business premises purpose built to her requirements. It had living space on the second floor where Margarete could see outside due to a large bay window. the soft felt toys were sold in the corner shop on the ground floor with its two display windows.
The firm that came to be called Steiff continued its positive growth for the years that followed. The first catalogue was produced in 1892. By this time the small felt animals which had originally only been elephants were not monkeys, a donkey, a camel, a horse, a mouse, a pig, a cat, a dog, a giraffe and a rabbit as well as elephants.
This small soft toy manufacturer was first entered in the commercial register as “Margarete Steiff, Filzwarenfabrik Giengen/Brenz” [Margarete Steiff, Felt goods factory Giengen/Brenz] on the 3rd March 1893.
Margarete worked on her passion with an iron will. In 1894 she was invited to St Gallen by a major toy dealer. Shortly afterwards, order started coming in from all over Germany. From Berlin to Rothenburg, and then from abroad.
When her brothers six sons reached adulthood she asked each of them to join the company. 5 of them were willing to do so and initially learned professions that suited their respective inclinations – designer, engineers and management experts. This was now truly a family run and managed business.
Leading up to Margaretes Death
The first representative began to present samples of Steiff products in 1894/95 – in addition to the goods produced by another company. The animals were also among those sold in Berlin businesses. Richard Steiff, Fritz’s second oldest son, joined the company in 1897.
Richard Steiff had always been close to his Aunt from childhood. He fitted in perfectly with the whole operation, he combined genuine business acumen with high levels of creativity. He had attended art school in Stuttgart before going to university in England.
Accompanied by another member of staff, Richard Steiff represented Steiff at the Leipzig trade fair, at the time the turn over of the company was 90000 marks.
Richards brothers, Franz, Otto, Hugo and Paul, then joined Steiff one after the other with varying responsibilities from sales to manufacturing technology. Margarete still kept track of the company as a whole.
Margarete left nothing to chance. Steiff was her company and her reputation. She made herself personally responsible for reviewing work routines, motivation and quality control. At this point she still made most of the prototypes herself and was extremely critical of the products that Steiff produced. This is part of how Steiff became the symbol of quality in the soft toy industry.
Margarete was well aware that her soft toy animals were sold for the purpose of entertaining children thus she imposed stringent requirements on the quality of products. Her motto was always “The best is just good enough for our children”.
Correspondingly only the best, highest quality materials were used. Animals were initially stuffed with sheep’s wool, which was then replaced with wood shavings in the 1890’s.
Even in the first Steiff catalogue the filling material was described as “soft, light and pure” (no animal hair, sawdust or cork waste). The Steiff soft toy animals were first introduced to Europe and then America.
Unfortunately for Margarete her beloved brother Fritz Steiff passed away in 1900, after this it was her relationship with her nephews that gave her the strength to drive the business forward. Richard in particular introduced many new products and came up with lots of ideas for increased production and quality, though Margarete still made most of the models herself.
Steiff was such a success that the factory was moved in 1903 to a two-storey building made almost entirely from concrete and glass with a ramp for easy wheelchair access to the second floor. Margaret was driven to the factory every day. She checked the products and colours. She applied finishing touches with a spray gun and went to see the employees who stuffed and stitched the animals. Her dedication was always absolute.
In 1902, Richard Steiff developed a new type of soft toy; with jointed arms and legs and proper fur made from mohair plush and glass eyes. At first Margarete questioned whether there was a market for relatively expensive animals, she also originally considered bears a bit ungainly.
This was a huge risk for Steiff as this teddy bear was much more expensive than the other animals and if the bear did not sell its production and stock would have cost Steiff a fortune and damaged the company.
In spite of Margaretes reservations she allowed Richard Steiff to persuade her and the bear was produced, though without success initially. They were first displayed at the Leipzig trade fair when an American bought all 3000 of them at last minute.
Bear PB became a smash hit at the World Exhibition in St. Louis. 12000 bears were sold, Margarete and Richard each received a gold medal and the Grand Prix – the highest prize possible – was awarded to the company.
Production increased to 1.7 million toy animals between 1903 and 1907. Steiff now had 400 workers on premises and 1800 women working from home. The Jointed bear set off on his march of conquest in America. Later he was named “teddy bear” by US president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt in 1906.
In 1907 competition soon necessitated the implementation of new measures. Nobody wanted to become involved in a price war and the Steiff family started looking ways to let people know when they were buying a Steiff bear and not a lesser imitation.
Franz Steiff came up with the idea of riveting a button to one ear of each animal. The “Button in Ear” was born. This is the trademark of a real Steiff animal today, over 100 years later.
Steiff hit hard times in 1908 as the American economy became under pressure. Orders were cancelled and large quantities of finished bears were turned away.
Margarete went through the upswing and the crisis full of activity. She was growing noticeably wear, though, and could often be seen sitting at her window, watching the comings and goings in the company from there. She seemed to know that her life was coming to an end.
Margarete Steiff was just 61 years old when she dies on 9th April 1909. What had originally seemed to be a hopeless life became a shining example of what can be achieved with courage, strength, willpower and most of all heart.
The Steiff family, the staff and the people of Giengen found it difficult to get over her death.
Steiff the company continued on without her right through to today. They are an example to company the world over who are trying to create quality items.