How Margarete Steiff Created The Teddy Bear

How Margarete Steiff found the determination and drive to defeat polio and create the Teddy Bear.

Margarete Steiff in her studio, late 1800’s with digitized Teddy 2009

Life can change in a moment

On July 24, 1847, in a small Bavarian town in southern Germany, Margarete Steiff woke with a high fever. Her legs felt immobile. She was barely one and a half years old. These are the early symptoms of polio.

Egyptian carving of man and child with withered legs due to polio

The disease of poliomyelitis is prehistoric. It strikes at the youngest, and we even see evidence in ancient Egyptian carvings of small children walking with canes.

It would take another 100 years before Dr. Jonas Salk would discover a vaccine in 1952.

Polio was the most feared disease in the world in the 20th Century. Margarete’s parents were inconsolable as they envisioned what Margarete’s life would be like, walking on crutches at first, then a wheelchair, for the rest of her days. Living an invalid life in the 19th Century meant not just total reliance on the care of others, but constant pain and fruitless search for remedies.

But no one told this to Margarete.

We don’t know whether she had a child’s reservoir of natural courage or perhaps she just didn’t dwell on illness. But when her siblings went to school, Margarete wasn’t about to stay home. Her parents arranged for her to ride in a hay cart, and when she arrived at the schoolhouse, a neighbor would pick her up and climb the stairs to the second-floor.

In 1863, Margarete enrolled in sewing school. She was only 17, and this was the equivalent of taking a computer course today— and suitable for someone unable to walk. In time, she became one of the most talented seamstresses, doing beautiful work for local families. Her remarkable ability with the was the talk of fashionable society in the village.

Seamstresses at Steiff GmbH in the late 1800's

There is no instruction manual for success

In 1874, as her workload grew, Margarete’s father built a small workshop, and eventually she was able to buy a sewing her own machine. The flywheel was placed on the right but Margarete had great difficulty turning it. So being Margarete, she had the flywheel reversed.

Then one of those fateful moments occurred that change our lives.When her cousin’s husband, Adolf Glatz, suggested she should start a real company and not just do piece work. Her ‘startup’ sold felt clothing and garments made by hand. Soon she employed 15 seamstresses.

Then on December 8, 1879, while reading a craft magazine, Modenwelt (Fashion World in German), she saw a pattern for a stuffed animal, a small baby elephant, and made it into a pin cushion. Sales took off. Only she later found buyers weren’t using them as pin cushions. They were buying them for children as toy pets.

By 1880, Margarete sold over 5,000 of the stuffed elephants. She began to design other animals, according to a catalog she released at the time. It included monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, mice, dogs, cats, hares, and giraffes. In that catalog, Margarete gave the company its motto:

“For children…only the best is good enough!”

At first, she was skeptical

Vintage Steiff Ted

Among Margarete’s employees was her nephew named Richard, whom she considered especially creative. He had attended art school in Stuttgart and taken courses in England and his fine, detailed animal sketches were the basis of many Steiff animals. Then, in 1902, he developed an animal that used mohair for the covering, making it the first children’s toy that could be called ‘cuddly’.

It was a bear.

Margarete was skeptical. Bears were not warm and fuzzy at that time, but she allowed Richard to present his bears at the Leipzig toy trade fair. An American buyer saw them, and instantly recognized their popularity as a gift for children. In 1906, he bought 3,000 of Margarete’s bears and marketed them in the United States as a Teddy Bear, named after President Theodore Roosevelt*.

A tradition that continues to this day was born because, as the Steiff website says, “those who believe in themselves are free”.

Portrait of Margarete Steiff with a digitized 2009 Teddy

Margarete died on May 9, 1909, at the age of 61 from complications related to a lung infection.

By 1907, a million Teddy Bears were produced.

The Steiff company still produces Teddy Bears, and about 20,000 other animal designs. You can read more about the company on the Steiff website.

Caricature of President Roosevelt protecting a bear, which led to his nickname, Teddy Bear
  • The Teddy Bear

The famed children’s toy is named after U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (who loathed being called “Teddy”). In 1902 he went on a hunting trip in Mississippi where he was unsuccessful in finding a bear, so his hunting partners sent their dogs to find one, which they did, and the bear was tied to a tree. They suggested Roosevelt shoot it. Roosevelt refused. He said it was unsportsmanlike. Political cartoonists had a field day poking fun at Roosevelt and gave him the nickname, Teddy Bear.

An American company also started making the Teddy Bear (Ideal Toy Company) at the same time as Steiff, but due to poor communications in those days, neither company was aware of the other.