Richard Steiff – Jackson Michigan
August 02, 2012
His toy bears are coveted by collectors worldwide.
Just say the name Richard Steiff and their faces light up. But mention that Steiff called Jackson home for the last 16 years of his life and those expressions likely will turn to questionable amazement.
It’s true. In another bit of fodder for the statement that “all things pass through Jackson,” the German-born creator of the Teddy Bear once called this city home.
“He was crazy about America and had come here many times,” said Susanna Steiff Pinyuh, 75, of Kent, Wash., Steiff’s granddaughter. “He wanted to live here.”
Why he settled in Jackson is simple, Pinyuh said. He had relatives here – well known relatives, the Haehnles of the Haehnle Brewing Co., Jackson beer makers.
Steiff arrived in Jackson in 1923, years after he had created what his 1939 front-page Citizen Patriot obituary said was “one of the most famous animal characters in toyland.”
Peek Through Time
Steiff was born in Geingen an der Brenz, Germany in 1877, the same year his aunt Margarete started her own company as a dressmaker. She was seamstress who was confined to a wheelchair at age 2 after a bout of polio.
Using a pattern she found in a magazine, Margarete made elephant-shaped pincushions that she quickly discovered children loved as toys, according to company history. She started making other plush, stuffed animals from patterns and prototypes she created herself.
Steiff joined his aunt’s company in 1897 after attending the School of Arts and Craftes in Stuttgart. While in school, Steiff hung out at a local zoo sketching bears. He used those sketches in 1902 to create a prototype Teddy Bear with moveable arms and legs.
The toy debuted with lukewarm reception at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903. But an American buyer took a chance anyway, snatching up the Steiffs’ lot of 100 bears and ordering another 3,000 as the fair closed.
By the time the St. Louis World’s Fair opened a year later, the bear was a hit. The Steiffs sold 12,000 of them and received the Gold Medal – the fair’s highest honor.
By 1907, the Steiff company was manufacturing 974,000 bears. In 1909, Steiff became the largest stockholder after his aunt’s death.
When he left Germany to manage importing and exporting aspects of the business and seek sources of American credit, Steiff did it all from Jackson. Pinyuh said he was also drawn to the city because of its many automobile manufacturers.
“He loved cars,” she said. “And he knew America was more advanced in manufacturing automobiles than Germany was.”
Steiff was a talented inventor and had developed a valve for automotive carburetors that was widely used in Germany. He also was an expert marksman and had several patents on firearms, including one for a system to absorb recoil in rifles. And he created the world’s first high-altitude kite.
Steiff also was an excellent bowler, and was quite popular around the city. As his obituary put it, Steiff had “a genial personality that made him hundreds of friends.”
His sudden death of a heart attack inside The Pub tavern, 1129 Greenwood Ave., on March 30, 1939 was a shock. He was 62. The Steiff company is still in business today.
* The popularity of Richard Steiff’s Teddy Bear likely gained a boost from President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a bear cub on a hunting trip in Mississippi was captured in a political cartoon in the Washington Post. The stuffed toy bears that were then entering the American marketplace were dubbed “Teddy’s bear.”
* While in Jackson, Steiff, his wife Else and daughter Marianne lived at 610 Harwood St.
* In a letter back to Germany from his Jackson home, Steiff once directed the company to change its realistic-looking design because Americans wanted happy bears.
* Steiff also was a talented artist. A 5-by-7 pencil drawing of Will Rogers hung in The Pub for years. Charles Bullinger, 89, whose family owned the tavern then, remembers seeing it there when he worked there as a 16 year old. “It was pretty neat,” Bullinger said. “But sadly, no one knows what happened to it.” The Bullingers sold The Pub in the late 1960s and it burned in 1970.
* Steiff also created a pencil drawing of Cascades Falls Park that was published in the Citizen Patriot’s centennial edition in 1937.
* A measure of Steiff’s popularity in Jackson is that his obituary lauded him a war veteran – even though his war service was for Germany in World War I. Steiff served four years under the command of Gen. Erich Ludendorff and fought in the famous battle of Verdun, France.
* After Steiff’s death, Else moved to 914 Union St. to live with her daughter Marianne, who then was married to physician Walter R. Finton. Elsa died in 1944 at age 62.
* Marianne divorced Finton, who then later died of hepatitis in France in 1945 during World War II. She moved to Ann Arbor and married esteemed University of Michigan professor James H. Meisel and became an award-winning novelist and an acclaimed artist. She died in Bellevue, Wash. in February at age 99.
* An exhibit featuring Steiff memorabilia and bears is part of the Chelsea Toy Museum in the Chelsea Teddy Bear Co., 400 N. Main St. Public tours are available at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. Saturdays. Group tours can also be arranged.