Margarete Steiff (1847–1909)

The life of Margarete Steiff is an heroic story of triumph over handicaps. It is also a significant part of the industrial history of Europe, of the growing tendency in the closing years of the 19th century to manufacture consumer goods on a large scale in factories.

Margarete Steiff was born in Giengen an der Brenz, 32 km NE of Ulm, the daughter of a master builder. When 18 months old she suffered from polio, which left her with paralysed legs, and only partial use of her right arm. She attended the school in Giengen, where her cheerfulness and her concern for younger children impressed her teachers. In 1856 she went for treatment that was ultimately unavailing at Ludwigsburg and Wildbad, which stimulated a wanderlust that continued throughout her life. In her teens she visited relations in Stuttgart, Augsburg, Lindau and other towns in southern Germany. She took up sewing and became a highly-skilled if slow seamstress. With her two sisters she used a dressmaking studio that her father created within the family home, where she used the first sewing machine to appear in Giengen.

In 1877 at the suggestion of Adolf Glatz, a local feltmaker, she set up a business manufacturing felt petticoats that were sold by a company in Stuttgart, and coats for children. She made a series of felt elephants, using a pattern from a magazine, that she gave as presents at Christmas 1880, and turned increasingly to manufacture felt toys, then a novelty, in her workshop. Examples were exhibited at Stuttgart in 1883. In 1888 her brother Fritz took over the family building business, and constructed for her purpose-designed accommodation in Muhlstresse, registered in 1893 as Margarete Steiff Filzwarenfabrik Giengen/Brenz. She published a catalogue in 1892 and by 1894 was fulfilling orders from companies in Berlin and abroad. The subsequent development of the business owed much to her nephew, one of five of the sons of Fritz Steiff who entered her business. He had studied in England, and attended art school in Stuttgart where he had particularly enjoyed sketching animals in the zoo. He was chiefly responsible for the building in 1903 of an iron-framed factory with glass curtain-walls and a flat roof, with the three upper floors supported on lattice-work columns, that is regarded as one of the first achievements of the Modern Movement in architecture. It incorporated a ramp by which Margarete Steiff could gain access in her wheelchair.

In 1902 Richard Steiff designed a jointed bear which rapidly proved to be commercially successful. Hermann Berg of New York Toy Co bought 3000 at Leipzig fair in 1903 and the following year the company was awarded the Grand Prix at the World Exhibition at St Louis, where some 12,000 bears were sold. The logo for which the company is famous, the ‘Knopf im Ohr’ (button in ear) was introduced in 1904. By 1907 the factory was employing some 400 people, together with 1800 women outworkers.

Margarete Steiff died on 9 April 1909, but the company continued in family ownership, and expanded considerably in the late 20th century. The factory at Giengen an der Brenz of 1903 remains in use, and attracts some 40,000 visitors a year.