Margarete Steiff – Founder of Steiff
Margarete Steiff: A paralyzed seamstress created a toy empire.
She managed to be incredible, as a woman with her disability was already written off in the 19th century. Despite her fate, the German Margarete Steiff did not give up and created the toy empire that still exists today. An inconspicuous tailor in a wheelchair created the first plush toys. Among them is the legendary teddy bear.
Apolonia Margarete, or even Gretel – as everyone called her – was born as a healthy child on July 24, 1847 in the Bavarian town of Giengen an der Brenz. Her parents – a builder and a housewife – already had two daughters, and later the Steiffs had a son, Fritz. When Gretel was one and a half years old, she contracted insidious polio, which crippled her for life. Since the vaccine did not yet exist at the time, she became paralyzed on both legs and had her right arm partially affected.
Despite all this, Margarete was very viable. She liked people and they adored her. And although the parents were convinced that nothing would happen to their daughter and they would have to take care of her until death, the opposite happened.
Margarete Steiff embroidered and crocheted despite her disability
Margarete, sentenced to a wheelchair and the help of siblings and friends, began going to school. She turned out to be very talented – she was soon one of the best students and, despite her disability, she was also extremely manual. She embroidered and crocheted very well.
The girl longed to be healthy, but despite numerous medical stays and leg surgeries, she did not succeed. Until her death, she was dependent on a wheelchair. However, she said that it would not disgust her and that she could prove to everyone that even a disabled diva could do a lot. Despite her parents’ initial reluctance, she enrolled in a sewing course and even learned to play the guitar so well that she could teach others.
Most of all, her father came up with the idea of rebuilding the house where the family lived and created a small tailoring workshop for her. The year was 1874 and Margarete and her sisters Maria and Paulina started a business. Soon they were so successful that they could afford something unseen until then. The first in Giengen they bought a manually operated sewing machine. As Gretel’s right hand was weaker, she learned to control it the other way around – she cranked her left hand and moved the fabric with a less strong right. Her sisters gradually fell in love and eventually remained alone in the workshop.
Margarete Steiff started a felt business
Margarete’s relative Adolf Glatz gave her the idea to start a business with the then-popular felt and even supported her financially. So she started sewing not only women’s fashion but also children’s felt coats. The turning point was the year 1880, when she saw a picture of a small elephant made of felt in a fashion magazine. Margarete got the idea that she was using the leftovers and sewed some elephant-shaped needles at Christmas. She gave them to her close friends. To her surprise, the needles did not warm up in them for a long time, the children who played with the elephants of the council were the most happy with them. Her brother Fritz encouraged her to sew more, and he went to market them in Heidenheim. Two bags of elephants disappeared from the counter immediately.
Thus was born the toy empire, which bore the name Steiff. Margarete began designing more felt animals, and a few years later she had a small workshop in her home. Brother Fritz, who took over her father’s construction company, built a house with a factory and shop in 1888, where Margarete lived and worked. In 1892, they came up with another novelty – the first illustrated catalog. At that time, the company already employed four women working directly in the workshop and ten other part-time workers sewed at home.
At the time, Steiff was becoming a family business – Margarete was helping five of her brother’s six children. A great contribution was especially the nephew Richard, who graduated from art school and encouraged his aunt to innovate. Although the toys were stuffed with sheep’s wool and fine wood fiber, it wanted to bring something new. Richard came up with something unseen – a moving toy with plush mohair arms and legs and glass eyes. He chose a bear as a model. Gretel was not very enthusiastic about the idea, she was afraid that the production of teddy bears could jeopardize the operation of the factory, but she was convinced. In 1902 she sewed the first teddy bear.
Margarete Steiff got the toys all the way to America
Richard went to the market with a new toy in Leipzig, where the cats had an unprecedented success. The company received a contract for three thousand pieces from an American. The teddy bears thus got to the American market, where at the world exhibition in St. Louis won a gold medal. Steiff sold another 12,000 units there.
Between 1903 and 1907, the production of stuffed animals grew at an incredible rate, and Margarete soon employed 400 people in the factory and another 1,800 women worked at home. They loved their boss very much, and although she was strict and precise, she was also very kind. However, she suffered for 100% performance, each new proposal passed through her hands.
The popularity of Steiff products also had a disadvantage – many other manufacturers tried to copy them. That’s why Richard came up with an idea that the company still uses today. Each animal was marked with a special button in the ear.
Margarete Steiff was hit by the financial crisis
However, nothing is quite perfect, the huge boom was stopped by the financial crisis in 1908 and thousands of bears remained in stock. It had a bad effect on Margarete, and she felt that she was gradually losing strength and vigor. She eventually contracted pneumonia and died on May 9, 1909. She was 61 years old.
However, her legacy did not disappear after her death. The relatives continued their work with more vigor and the company prospers to this day. She still follows Margarete Steiff’s motto all her life: “Only the best is good enough for children.” That’s why they still sew their typical teddy bears at Steiff by hand. And to Giengen, where Margarete lived and worked, people flock to see her museum.