All Steiff teddy bears are unique. ‘You have to really look them in the face to see that no two are alike,’ says Joachim Steiff, descendant of the German company’s founder Richard Steiff. ‘I’ve watched collectors in shops spending ages staring at two examples of the same model before deciding which one to take. And there will be something, very hard to discern but there, that is different about the one they pick.’
As Steiff knows, teddy bears can provoke as much passion among big kids as among those of more standard size. The Steiff company is, arguably, the world’s best-known manufacturer of teddy bears. It was 110 years ago that Richard Steiff, a German artist who spent years studying the bears of Stuttgart Zoo and Romany travelling circuses, designed the very first teddy bear for his aunt Margarete’s toy business. It was initially mounted on wheels, made for riding and aimed at boys. Amendments over the next few years made this prototype closer to the cuddly companion we know today, and the bear created a sensation at its debut at the 1903 Leipzig toy fair. Within five years, Steiff was selling a million bears each year.
‘And they keep selling,’ says Steiff, majority shareholder in the company and grandson of Richard’s nephew and successor Otto. ‘With the world changing so fast and becoming so technologically driven, the idea of something from the 1880s still fitting into the modern society seems unlikely. But it does so precisely because it’s such a contrast to the digital world. It’s hard to put your feelings into a computer.’
The teddy bear was as much a toy phenomenon when it was launched as it is today. It was named teddy after then US president Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, ironically due to his love of bear-hunting. There are famous bears, such as Sebastian’s Aloysius in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and it is 85 years ago this year that A A Milne published Winnie the Pooh, with illustrations by E H Shepard based on Growler, his son’s Steiff bear. Steiff can also boast a 40,000-strong collectors’ club, ready to pay big money for rare examples. A special-edition Titanic bear, created to mark the loss of the liner, would now change hands for €17,000, while a 1926 Steiff sold for a world-record €170,000 in 2005. The company now even makes a special model with golden nose and diamond eyes for around €28,000. These, however, are exceptions, says Joachim Steiff, stressing that the last few years have seen the company go back to its roots to hand-make products aimed squarely at children, rather than at grown-ups with lots of pocket money.
The teddy bear has always been subject to fashion. After World War Two, for example, a softer, more baby-faced, American-influenced style came in. Local events also shape trends; when a polar bear became a sensation at Berlin Zoo, white bears became a best-seller. But, while Steiff’s new felt collection includes a pug and an elephant, it is the classic Steiff bear, with its signature ear clip and distinctive longer snout and limbs, that is again most in demand.
‘I know now that it’s hard to beat the bear,’ says Steiff, who admits that, as a child, he never had a teddy bear, preferring a toy lamb made by the company. ‘Whether polar, brown, black or grizzly, a bear looks much the same, and it’s that simplicity and universality that is a big part of its attraction, one I don’t see fading any time soon.’
Indeed, the teddy bear seems to only be growing in stature, with Steiff seeing increased competition from bear-making brands such as Chad Valley and Merrythought, alongside new concepts such as Build-A-Bear. Bears are also finding a further reach. Teddy bears have traditionally sold best in colder Northern European and American climates, due to the belief that the bear was a source of warmth for a child. But in recent decades the bear has gone global, given to commemorate births, as a love token and to people in hospital.
‘Teddy bears have lasting appeal,’ says Steiff. ‘Most children love them and clearly a lot of adults keep that love as they grow older too. It reminds them of their childhood, when the bear was perhaps the only fixed point in their lives and the one who would always listen to them. That love for teddy bears really comes from the heart.’