QUESTION: I recently found a darling little felt elephant pincushion in a local antique shop. The dealer said it was a Steiff, but I thought Steiff only made teddybears. Did the company make other things? What can you tell me about my little elephant?
ANSWER: Believe it or not, you bought one of the items that Steiff made. The company has made fine quality of teddybears since they produced their first bear in 1903, but it didn’t start there. Over two decades before, Margarete Steiff designed a small felt elephant that she made as both a pincushion and a child’s toy.
Margarete Steiff faced a lot of challenges before coming a successful businesswoman. Even before she could walk, she lost the use of her legs from polio. Confined to a wheelchair as she grew up, she became a skilled seamstress and ran a successful dress making enterprise from her home in Germany. She gave her little elephants to friends and neighbors.
In 1880 she sold eight of the elephants, thus marking the beginning of the Margarete Steiff Toy Company. Her brother Fritz thought her elephants appealing and in 1883 he took a some of the elephants to a market in Heidenheim where he received a large number of orders. The company's price list of that year described "felt toys for children – robust and safe. Elephant with colored blanket." Steiff made her elephants in several sizes and stuffed them with leftover pieces of felt. She added metals wheels to some of them and left others without them. Building up this initial success, she showed the elephants at an export showroom in Stuttgart and soon she began creating additional animals for her line.
Business continued to grow, and in 1889 the company moved into a building that provided a corner shop with display windows. By 1893 the company had four employees and ten home workers, with a traveling sales representative added to the payroll the following year. Margarete's brother Fritz was a major help in designing wood and metal frames for the larger toys, and in obtaining equipment to allow increased production. Margarete concentrated on creating felt toys, using the best materials available, thus setting the benchmark for Steiff's reputation for quality that continues today.
To distinguish her work, Margarete filed patents and used a trademark of an elephant printed on a paper label. In 1904, she had the elephant trademark embossed on a metal button which she attached to each animal.
Eventually, Steiff’s little felt elephant grew into an entire menagerie of rabbits, deer, polar bears, frogs, fox terriers, and a big collection of monkeys. One of the most popular animals was a chimpanzee that wore a chauffeur’s cap.