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April 1996

All about Teddies: The German Origins of the World's Most Popular Toy

The hisotry and future of the German teddy bear

Elke Kraus keeps the eyes in a drawer of her workbench. Black in one box, brown in the middle, and a few blue ones on the right hand side. She also has green and gold eyes, but not many. These, she says, are for animals-particularly cats. Many patients arrive at her Munich clinic blind in one or both eyes. Others are missing a limb or are bald. Some, over many years, have silently watched their innards seep out. Kraus operates skillfully with a scalpel and stitches. In a day, new life is breathed back into old skin, tattered ears become whole, amputated limbs are replaced, and the anorexic stuffed with wood shavings. With a knife she cuts off dull eyes and replaces them with new ones. Everything seems to heal around Elke Kraus. "Is there anything sadder or more forlorn than a tired, worn-out, old teddy bear?" she asks, her fingers drawing a dancing thread through the roll of pelt on her workbench. "But when my patients leave, I know they are healthy and strong enough to face another century and all the love and neglect that may mean." Kraus is well-known as a teddy bear maker and collector. She is also regarded by fellow collectors as something of a miracle-worker. Her Munich Teddy Bear Clinic is renowned as the last chance for old bears to receive a new lease of life and teddy owners the world over eagerly entrust their favorite toys to her not inexpensive skills. "You can understand why," Kraus says. "For many people, teddy bears are part of their childhood memories and they want them preserved. The price does not matter." Not only is Munich famous as a center for teddy bear repairs, but it is only an hour and a half from here by car to the place where teddies were invented 93 years ago. Since then, these soft, gentle creatures-from Winnie-the-Pooh down through Rupert and Paddington Bear-have captured the imagination of 20th-century children like no other single toy. And it's not just kids that have been captivated. Like Kraus, many adults, including rock stars, actors, poets and politicians, have fallen under the teddy's peculiar, enticing, psychological spell. Many bears are now collector's items, selling for record prices at toy auctions. And amazingly enough, as we near the end of the century and an age of sophisticated, electronic kid's toys, teddy bears remain the world's most popular toy. THE FIRST TEDDY If you go down to the Swabian woods today, you're in for a really big surprise. No, it is unlikely you'll actually find a teddy bear picnic in full swing, but what you will discover is the birthplace of teddy bears. In 1902, in the quiet town of Giengen an der Brenz, northwest of Augsburg, childhood was changed forever. It was here that the first teddy was invented. The "inventor," Richard Steiff, was an innovator and dreamer who had studied as an artist, and was captivated by bears. He spent many hours in the bear pits at the Stuttgart Zoological Gardens making sketches and was determined to produce a toy bear. He worked in his aunt Margarete's small toy factory, the Steiff company. She was a strong-willed woman who, although confined to a wheelchair after an attack of polio in childhood, managed to set up and run the business. "Margarete Steiff was a very loving woman, but she was also very, very strong and determined," says Jörg Junginger, Steiff's development manager and a member of the Steiff family. "She started the company, building it with nothing but the toys her own two hands could make. At that time, business was seen solely as a man's preserve. It was extremely unusual for a woman, let alone a handicapped woman, to start a business. But Margarete did, and through her determination, she earned the respect of all those she dealt with." It was to this hard-headed and pragmatic woman that Richard Steiff turned for approval to produce his bear. His aunt and other family members initially opposed the idea, arguing the prototypes were too big and heavy, and the mohair of which they were made was too difficult to obtain. But Richard persisted with his designs and eventually an acceptable model, known as "Friend Petz," was produced and exhibited with other Steiff toys at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1902-where it was almost a total failure. "The only exception was with a buyer for F.A.O. Schwartz, the American toy giant," says Junginger. "He placed an order for 3,000 bears and changed the name to 'Teddy' to help the animal appeal to American children." Exactly why the F.A.O. Schwartz buyer changed the bear's name is a matter of conjecture, but it seems he was inspired by then-President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, who was affectionately known as "Teddy." WILD ABOUT BEARS That was when teddy bears sales really took off. By 1907, Steiff alone produced over 974,000 bears, while a host of competitors also cashed in on the phenomenon. It was not only possible to buy teddy bears in all shapes and sizes, but there were also teddy bear games, clothes for teddy boys and teddy girls, as well as carts, cars, boats and automobiles all especially designed for teddies. Teddy bear images began appearing on everything from china tea sets to postcards, and teddy bears were celebrated in songs and books-among them the popular Winnie-the-Pooh series, written in England in 1926. And it wasn't just in the United States that everyone wanted a teddy. Interest quickly spread around the world, and all these years later, teddy bears are still the top choice of kids worldwide. Indeed, the modern childhood landscape would be a barren place without them. ALMOST HUMAN So what is the appeal of teddy bears-beyond the cute cuddle answers? Junginger says Richard Steiff never wrote down what inspired him to design teddy bears. "Why did Richard choose the bear? Well, it is absolutely the strongest European animal and there is something reassuring in having a strong friend. Also there is something mystical about the animal...and its habits are very human-like-it can walk on two legs, for example. Richard Steiff recognized these 'human' qualities and used them to create a new toy-a bear with a human body. The toy was not a copy of a human, like a doll, nor was it an exact copy of an animal-it fell somewhere in between. I think the appeal of teddy bears lies in this fact. They are familiar and comforting, yet also different." Bears appear as mystical creatures in the fairy tales of almost every European country. Stories include Snow White and Rose Red by the Brothers Grimm, The White Bear from Sweden, and The Princess and the Bear from Austria. Of course, the most famous fairy tale concerning bears is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Those who plumb such tales for deeper, darker meanings, say it deals symbolically with the struggle with Oedipal predicaments, the search for identity, and sibling rivalry. Elsewhere it has been suggested that the anthropomorphic nature of teddies meets the need for a silent, loyal companion. They provide reassurance as a confidant who can be trusted with one's intimate thoughts and even occasionally abused without retaliation. In reality, while much has been written about the appeal of teddies, including by the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, no one has ever fully "explained" their appeal and it is likely to remain a mystery. NOT JUST KIDS Of course, teddy bears are not only fascinating to children. Many adults also find teddies irresistible. Leyla Maniera, teddy bear specialist at Christie's auction house in London, says, "What appeals to adults is the nostalgia value. Nearly everyone had a bear as a child and having a bear as an adult allows them to hold onto, or recall, part of their childhood. In an age of endless bad news of wars, poverty and death, it is comforting to have a symbol of the security and love you knew as a child and I suspect everyone has a bear, even if that bear is locked away in their hearts or memories." It is, perhaps, this "comfort" aspect which has fueled the recent explosion in teddy bear prices. Even as late as ten years ago, second-hand teddies could be bought for a few dimes at a flea market. Soon, however, bears began to be seen as collectibles and were included in toy auctions by companies such as Sotheby's and Christie's. Today the teddy bear market is far from child's play. Christie's now has a yearly auction devoted entirely to teddies and collectors spend huge sums not just on rare and "artistic" teddies, but also on their clothes and other paraphernalia as well. In 1989, Alfonzo, a red Steiff bear, sold for a then record of DM 38,700. The bear, made between 1906 and 1911, was the only toy that Princess Xenia, sister of Czar Nikolaus II, took with her when she fled to England at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. Then in 1993, Eliott, a rare, blue-colored trial model bear made by Steiff around 1908, sold for DM 169,000. But the final transition of teddy bears from collectibles to valuable antiques occurred last year on December 5 when a small, cinnamon-colored Steiff bear called Teddy Girl sold for £110,000 at a Christie's teddy bear auction-more than double the previous record. While the result sent people around the world scurrying into attics to dust off their old battered Poohs and Ruperts, Maniera cautions that such prices are unlikely to occur regularly: "What has to be understood is that Teddy Girl was a very famous bear and her history is well documented. That is the reason for the high price. She has appeared in almost every book written on bears." IT'S A STEIFF! The key word in the astronomical figures paid for Alfonzo, Eliott and Teddy Girl, is "Steiff." According to Maniera, Steiff is almost solely responsible for the boom in the market. "If prices were set for the top 10 most valuable teddy bears in the world, all of them would be Steiff bears. Steiff continues to set the standards others have to match. Their workmanship and quality is outstanding. Many of these bears were made 70 and 80 years ago and are now turning up for auction still in good condition." Today, the Margarete Steiff GmbH is still owned by the Steiff family,although the family has diversified its interests into such areas as machinery and rubber products. But, with an annual turnover of almost DM 100 million, the toy firm still remains the company flagship. A Steiff plush toy-with its famous "Knopf im Ohr" trademark (a little metal stud in one ear)-is still an object of quality and something of a childhood status symbol, but they don't come cheap. Price tags start at well over DM 100 for even a small bear and range to DM 25,000 for a full-sized elephant, but the price is not a deterrent-the 1.5 million plush toys Steiff makes annually (approximately 300,000 of them bears) are still eagerly sought after. One reason for the high price is that the toys are still hand-made in Germany in small runs using the finest materials. The pattern is printed on the backside of the plush, cut out by hand and then sewn together. Sometimes this is done with heavy machines but often, when the company is producing limited edition old-fashioned bears, this is also carried out by hand. The bears are then stuffed with wood shavings, acrylic or polyester fillings. FUTURE GENERATIONS But if the quality and collectability of Steiff bears seem to ensure their future and the continued success of the Steiff company itself, what of teddies as a breed? Will they continue to have wide appeal and work their particular magic in the modern age of computers and cheap, mass-marketed products? Lyla Maniera believes there are no grounds for pessimism. "I recently returned from Japan where teddies are now being marketed more heavily and it is surprising how eagerly the children adopted them. The culture there is much more technology-oriented but the children seemed to need an escape from that and teddy bears seem to provide it. That was reassuring to see," she says. "I believe there will always remain a place in the human heart for teddy bears." YOUR CHILD'S FIRST TEDDY Okay, you've decided it's time to get your child a teddy bear. But with all the different manufacturers and kinds of teddies out there in various price ranges, how do you know which one to buy? "It depends whether you are going out to buy a teddy bear as an investment, as an object of value, or as a bear that will be played with and cuddled," says Lyn Vowles, editor of Teddy Bear Times, a biweekly magazine for teddy bear collectors which is distributed throughout Europe and America. "There are two types of teddies today: those you normally find in a toy shop, and those known as 'artistic teddy bears'-bears that are completely hand-crafted, individually designed, usually made by one person and are aimed at collectors." Artistic bears usually begin at around DM 250 and can go well over DM 1,000 depending on the size, the work involved and the name of the creator. Antique bears are also becoming increasingly expensive and are unlikely to sell for under DM 1,000. "If you buy a Steiff bear, for example, you are more likely to keep it in its box and only bring it out to play with every now and again," says Vowles. "If you wanta bear for everyday use, it is better to go to a department store and buy a plush bear. There is likely to be far more value in that." Leyla Maniera, teddy bear expert at Christie's auction house, disagrees. A child's first teddy is very personal and usually for life, she argues. "I believe every child's first bear should be special and, if I were buying a first bear for someone, I would buy a Steiff-there is something magical about them. They are tough and enduring, as well as full of character." Most large Munich department stores stock teddy bears, though larger toy shops generally have a broader, if slightly more expensive, range. Obletter has a particularly good selection of bears. Specialist shops in Munich include Rainer Fuchs of Teddy Express who runs a mail-order business for English bears (tel. 123 88 32) and Münchner Puppenstuben at Maxburgstraße 4 (tel. 29 37 97). Steiff bears can also be purchased direct from the factory and you can join the Steiff Club which entitles you to four magazines a year on Steiff and bears (tel.(07322) 13 11). Other German bear manufacturers include Althans KG from Neustadt-Birkig, who have been making bears since 1920, Baki Plüschspielwaren from Rodach bei Coburg, Clemens Spieltiere GmbH from Kirchardt and Hermann Teddies from Hermann Spielwaren GmbH from Coburg. In Munich, Christie's Deutschland (tel. 22 95 39) will help value your teddy, while Elke Kraus is the person to see to have them repaired (tel. 16 45 55). Although she is also famous for her own artistic bears, she is far from the only creator in Germany. Others include Susanne Grosser of Munich (tel. 538 93 66), Karin Heller of Pforzheim (tel. (07231) 145 94) and a woman with the slightly unbelievable name of Heike Bär of Glashüttenweg 2, 96465 Neustadt. Antique bears can be viewed at the Münchener Puppenmuseum (in the Stadtmuseum on Jakobsplatz) or along with other antique toys at the Spielzeugmuseum in the Alter Rathausturm on the Marienplatz. Antique Steiff bears and toys also can be viewed at the small museum attached to the Margarete Steiff GmbH factory in Giengen an der Brenz.

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