Incurable Disease Meets Indomitable Spirit And Creates The Teddy Bear

How family, love, determination and drive defeated all odds and brought joy to the world.

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 sudden pain in her right arm and a high fever. Her legs felt immobile. She was barely one and a half years old.

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

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

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

Polio was the most feared disease in the world in the 20th Century. Margarete’s parents were unconsolable as they envisioned the kind of life she would lead as an invalid in the mid 19th Century, one of pain, hopeless search for remedies, and total reliance on the care of others.

Only no one told Margarete.

We don’t know whether her reaction to the disease was natural courage or that she just didn’t dwell on her illness. But when her siblings went to school, Margarete wasn’t staying home. So a hay cart was arranged to take her with them, and when she arrived at the schoolhouse, a neighbor would pick her up and climb the stairs to the second-floor classroom.

In 1863, when Margarete was 17 she enrolled in sewing school. This was the equivalent of taking a computer course today, learning the most usable skill that one could perform with a handicap. In time, she became a talented seamstress doing work for local families.

Seamstresses at Steiff GmbH in the late 1800's

There is no instruction manual for success

In 1874, Margarete’s father built a small workshop in his house, and eventually she was able to buy a sewing machine. The fly wheel was placed on the right but Margarete had great difficulty turning it. So being Margarete, the fly wheel was reversed.

Then one of those fateful moments occurred when her cousin’s husband, Adolf Glatz, suggested she should start her own company. Her ‘startup’, as we might call it today, sold felt clothing and garments made by hand, her hand. Soon she grew large enough to employ 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.

By 1880, Margarete sold over 5,000 of the stuffed elephants and started 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 a 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 ‘cuddlely’. It was a bear.

Margarete was skeptical. Bears were not considered warm and fuzzy at that time, but she allowed Richard to present his bears at the Leipzig toy trade fair. An American buyer saw the bears and instantly recognized their future 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.

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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, and Michael Milken’s CareerTrack; venture capital partner with Schroders, and advisor, Highland Capital.

He writes 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.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.