The Fascinating Story of Margarete Steiff, 1847 - 1909
Brave Child, Talented Seamstress and One of the First Female CEO’s and Entrepreneurs in the World
The remarkable story of the Steiff™ trademark, a world renowned brand synonymous with beauty, quality and safety in the toy industry, begins with the humblest of roots in a little German town, where a child crippled from polio perseveres to become one of the world’s first successful female entrepreneurs. For well over a century, Margarete’s company, Steiff GmbH, has been designing and manufacturing exquisitely crafted animal friends, motivated by the same motto she declared decades ago, “Only the best is good enough for children.”
1847 - A Legacy Begins
On July 24th, 1847, Appolonia Margarete Steiff was born in Giengen on the Brenz, Germany, as the third of four children. Margarete was named after her godmother, but was referred to by her middle name, or its’ affectionate abbreviation, Gretle. Her devoted and industrious parents, Friedrich Steiff and Maria Margarete Hahnle, cared for her and siblings Marie, Pauline and Friedrich, at home where they also ran a construction business.
When Margarete was just 18 months old, a horrific fate fell upon the family as little Gretle became gravely ill with a high fever and was later diagnosed with polio. Margarete’s eventual recovery left her with a completely paralyzed left foot, partially lame right foot and restricted use of her right hand. Devastated and determined to help their daughter regain the use of her limbs, the Steiff’s consulted countless doctors and aggressively travelled to seek any services and therapies that showed potential promise. They even pursued an operation that involved cutting two tendons in Margarete’s left foot and then putting her leg in a plaster casing with the hopes of straightening it. Unfortunately, all therapies and this surgical attempt were unsuccessful, leaving Margarete destined to be carried, pulled or wheeled for the long and illustrious life that lay ahead of her. In spite of her physical limitations, Margarete remained a cheerful, ambitious and resilient child. She was happily toted about in a hand-pulled cart, or slid about on the floor or ground (even played Hide and Seek!) determined to be a part of the neighborhood games and pranks. In Margarete’s diary, she writes, “…apart from this (polio), I was, and remained, remarkably healthy, suffering very little from other illnesses usually associated with childhood.” Margarete’s diaries share wonderful recollections of her enthusiastic spirit, her positive disposition and her brave, peaceful acceptance of “God’s will” that she never walk again.
Thus, with spirit and resolve, Margarete embraced her destiny, enjoyed her lessons and worked hard. She was happily taken to school in her hay cart and then carried upstairs to her classroom by a kind woman who lived near the school. It would seem that Margarete had successfully surrounded herself with a supportive network of friends and displayed no self-pity as she cheerfully accepted her need to rely on others for mobility.
1862 - Apprenticeship and Early Visionary
At the age of 17, Margarete, like most young girls of her time, went to sewing school with the intention of learning valuable skills to contribute to a presumed, someday-marriage. She attended a needlework class and learned dressmaking, knitting, crochet work, embroidery and tailoring. Not surprisingly, it was difficult for Margarete to complete her projects as she had limited, and painful, use of her right hand. As one of Margarete’s journal entry states, “I was a great worry to my two sisters. They were so capable and talented, where I seemed to make every mistake that was possible to make. They gave up hoping that I would produce anything worthwhile with my needle.” Yet Margarete persevered and successfully completed her training as a seamstress.
Soon thereafter, her sisters would move away, leaving Margarete at home with her brother Fritz, who quickly became her closest friend and confidant. Eventually, Fritz left town to attend engineering school, and Margarete, now the only child in the once bustling household, was allowed to “fulfill her dearest wish”, and her parents let her learn to play the zither. Not only did the music bring her great comfort and pleasure, but using the instrument also strengthened the fingers in her right hand, which greatly improved her talent and confidence when sewing. Mastering the zither also allowed for what might be considered Maragete’s first entrepreneurial endeavor; she offered zither lessons and collected small fees for her teaching. During these years, Margarete’s diaries share of her gratitude to her parents for not “spoiling her” because of her sickness; rather, they taught her “to cope with the hardships of life.” Thus, with focus and competency, Margarete worked hard and was allowed to keep every Kreutzer she earned. Her savings, combined with that of her sisters Pauline and Marie, allowed the trio to purchase a sewing machine; the first one in their hometown of Giengen! With their collective time, talent and resources, the sisters established a thriving tailoring business. And when it was time for her sisters to get married, Margarete continued the business, solo, working on not just tailoring but trousseau pieces and modern clothing as well. By the age of 25, her customer base had grown considerably. With the increased work, and her physical challenges, Margarete’s clever ingenuity once again presented itself. She determined (and states proudly in her diary), that she could literally take matters into her own hands writing, “I discovered that I could work the machine with my left hand if I put it back-to-front before my chair. This was quite a discovery!” Once again, Margarete’s positive attitude, resourcefulness and common sense combined to offer a solution in productivity that would allow her to meet customer demand.
1874 - Mobility, Confidence and Risk lead to Career Independence
Extraordinarily mobile, Margarete travelled a great deal over the years, visiting relatives and friends. Her wheel chair would be sent ahead by wagon and she would travel by Post Coach, gladly accepting the kindness and assistance of strangers. She was a cheerful and persistent opportunist, as well as a great improviser, which ultimately led to her endeavoring what might have otherwise been perceived as much too aggressive travel for a woman of her situation. Margarete especially enjoyed her visits with the Glatz family. Adolf Glatz, the husband of Margarete’s cousin Marie, entered a business partnership with Hans Hahnle, and Margarete was fascinated by the endeavor. Glatz, the son of a felt supplier, would become a highly instrumental advisor, resource and friend for Margarete.
Her 27th birthday, on July 24, 1874, was indeed a happy one for Margarete! Her father converted the Steiff family home on Lederstrabe to give Margarete her own apartment that included her first tailor’s workshop. Success continued to follow. By 1877, with felt appearing to be the choice fabric of the times, Adolf Glatz encouraged Margarete to open a “ready-to-wear felt shop”; essentially, she opened her own felt factory. Although clearly a risky business undertaking, Margarete had sufficient savings, sewing experience and confidence to take the chance. Her courage did not go unrewarded. As her diary shares, “I opened my Felt Store and began making felt underskirts which had just come into fashion for the firm of Christian Siegle in Stuttgart; I was also able to make and sell a few privately. I was very successful, even in the first year and I was able to employ a few people to work for me.” Soon she was sewing felt coats for children and dresses for adults. Margarete’s business acumen prevailed and she was able to save money to reinvest in her thriving dressmaking business. Records available today show that 3,065 Marks were used to purchase felt that year. During these busy years, Margarete’s pleasant disposition remained intact as she continued to make dresses for her relatives and friends because otherwise, she states, “I would make them very unhappy.”
1880 - Margarete Steiff Founds a Company
Although it is known that Margarete technically started in business several years earlier, the official history date of the Margarete Steiff Toy Company is 1880. It is believed that this date was determined as it coincided with the manufacturing of her first felt toys. As it happened, fashion-forward Margarete kept abreast of trends through reading industry magazines. In the December 8th, 1879 magazine of Modenwelt (Fashion World) Margarete saw the sewing pattern for a little animal, “Elephant of Cloth. To be used as a toy”, that would unwittingly account for the big changes in her career. As expressed in Margarete’s diary, “At this time, I came across a pattern for a toy elephant. Felt was the ideal material for this toy, and the filling would be of the finest lambswool. Now, I could make these (the elephants) as gifts for the children in the family, and I tried out the pattern in various sizes.” Margarete’s expertise in the sewing room inspired her to make a few changes in the pattern’s recommendations, and not surprisingly, her elephant toys were a big success with the children. She also made many for friends as tokens of her appreciation…. which she discovered were often used as pin cushions! Although making the felt elephants was entertaining and perhaps hobby-like in nature for Margarete, it is documented that she did in fact sell eight of the small toys in 1880. In the years that followed, Modenwelt continued to offer patterns for readers to make at home and soon Margarete had added a bear, poodle, donkey, monkey, camel, lion, lamb, parrot, ox and terrier to her collection.
Margarete’s brother Fritz, now done with his studies, married and with five sons, immediately recognized the opportunity available to his talented sister with the new menagerie of felt animals. He persuaded her to make him enough little elephants to fill a sack and then carried them off to the nearby market in Heidenheim. His inclinations were correct; many orders were placed and huge success followed. Just six years later Margarete had sold over 5,000 elephants. Fritz continued to encourage and inspire Margarete and by 1890, the assortment of felt toys offered numbered 13, and an impressive 5,480 pieces were manufactured. That same year, to accommodate Margarete’s business growth and her personal needs, Fritz built a house for his dear sister, which included a flat on the first floor, designed for disabled people, as well as a small corner shop, which can still be viewed today on what is now known as Margarete Steiff Strasse (Margarete Steiff Road). Visitors will see that there is still the sign painted Filz-Spielwaren-Fabrikâ (Felt Toy Factory) on the wall.
In 1892 the first illustrated Steiff catalogue was released which showed the diversity of the product range. In addition to elephants there were monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, mice, dogs, cats, hares and giraffes. Also proclaimed in the catalogue was Margarete’s heartfelt motto that has remained the philosophy of the company to this day; For Children, Only The Best Is Good Enough.
1893 - A True Visionary Guides Company Growth
Just one year later, on March 3rd, 1893, her toy factory was entered in the trade register as Margarete Steiff, Felt Toy Factory, Giengen/Brenz. Margarete now employed four seamstresses and ten home workers. By 1897, her company had grown to ten in-house employees and 30 home workers. The financial records for 1897 show a turnover of 90,000 Marks. In 1900, Margarete’s company had 30 employees on site and another 54 women working from home. The annual turnover grew to 188,000 Marks. Recognizing the importance of foreign markets, Margarete arranged for Steiff representation in the US, Britain, Holland and Italy. This economic foresight proved critical as international success followed. Forward Note: By 1907, Margarete’s little Felt Toy Factory had become an international company offering jobs to 400 factory employees and 1800 home workers. Together they produced 973,999 teddy bears and approximately 1,700,000 toys!
1902 - The Teddy Bear is born
Richard Steiff, Margarete’s creative and favorite nephew, entered the company in 1897. He attended the school of applied arts in Stuttgart and studied in England. His animal sketches were the basis for many Steiff creations. In 1902 he designed the "Bear 55PB" bears, the world's first stuffed toy bears with moveable arms and legs. Richard searched for the highest quality of materials to serve as a covering for the bears and it was then that he discovered the soft, cuddly and good for coloring mohair plush that remains a signature element in the design and manufacturing of Steiff products.
Margarete herself remained skeptical that the bears would be successful, but Richard was allowed to present his bears at the Leipzig toy trade fair. The breakthrough came when an American trader discovered the bears and ordered 3,000 of them. The bears began an unprecedented selling success in the USA from 1906 under the name of Teddy Bear - named after the American president Theodore Teddy Roosevelt.
1904 - The “Steiff – Knopf im Ohr” (Button in Ear) Trademark Established
In order to make their own high-quality products unmistakably identifiable, and to fend off numerous cheap imitations, Franz Steiff developed the signature brand sign "Steiff - Button in Ear", the internationally renowned trademark still associated with all that is genuinely Steiff. And then finally, in 1906, her company was officially founded as Margarete Steiff GmbH (the equivalent of what is considered a limited company.)
By 1907, with remarkable self-discipline, determination, talent and intuition, Margarete had built her company to include 400 employees and 1,800 home workers. They produced 973,999 teddy bears and a total of around 1,700,000 toys. Margarete’s keen eye for a creative design, her commitment to using only the finest materials, her kind and compassionate disposition, and her ability to hire exceptional talent within and beyond the Steiff family, assured that her leadership was admired and respected by all.
1909 - Margarete Leaves an Empire and a Legacy
On the 9th of May 1909, Margarete Steiff died suddenly and quite unexpectedly after suffering a severe lung infection from a bout with pneumonia. Margarete’s passing was a devastating event not only for family and friends, but also for all her employees who had come to consider her the “matriarch.” Margarete had made a decision when her sister Marie had died earlier in 1879, “that she would care for her siblings and their offspring for their entire lives.” Indeed it is safe to say that she was successful in fulfilling this commitment as she had arranged for her devoted and talented nephews to take over the company. Since they shared her vision and dreams so completely, her nephews were able to honor Margarete’s past as they guided her company vision into the future.
Historic writings share that Margarete’s father had enthusiastically supported her inclination towards business, recognizing that, beyond all odds, it was indeed his disabled daughter that would emerge as the mainstay of the Steiff family and assume responsibility of all its members.
To this day, Margarete is revered as one of the great leaders of industry; one who provided jobs and security for so many that ultimately brought prosperity to an entire region in Germany. Her professional genius was observed even in the event of her death as her will and testament guaranteed an uninterrupted continuation of her life’s work. Margarete’s death was a monumental event for an entire community. Vintage photographs share what appears to be an endless procession of mourners following the carriage that held her mortal remains.
Apollonia Margarete Steiff is buried beneath a magnificent tombstone in the Giengen cemetary, where visitors continue to pay respects one of history’s most successful female entrepreneurs.
For more historical information on the Margarete Steiff, GmbH Company as it progressed beyond 1909, please visit www.steiffusa.com.
NOTE: In compiling this time line, Steiff North America gratefully acknowledges and respectfully references the brilliant research documented in two remarkable publications; 125 Years Steiff Company History by Gunther Pfeiffer, and Button In Ear by Jurgen and Marianne Cieslik. Both are highly recommended reads to learn more about the Steiff family and company.