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    Friday, December 01, 2023

    Visiting the birthplace of the teddy bear

    If you own a stuffed animal with a yellow Steiff tag pinned in its ear, you have a descendant of one of the first teddy bears.

    While the stuffed bears were eventually named for President Theodore Roosevelt, part of their origin story can be traced to Germany with a woman named Margarete Steiff. She founded her company in Giengen, Germany, in 1880.

    Steiff, who contracted polio when she was 18 months old, was paralyzed in her legs and had limited use of her right arm. But she became a master seamstress and ran a felt clothing business.

    Her first animal creation was a small, felt elephant, which was intended to be a pin cushion. The Steiff catalogue expanded to include other animals such as monkeys, giraffes and rabbits. Then in 1902, Margarete's nephew, Richard Steiff, designed a stuffed bear with arms and legs you could move, known as "Bear 55PB" — plush, movable and 55 centimeters tall. His original sketches date back to 1894.

    It was an instant success in the United States.

    The stuffed toy later got its "Teddy" name, thanks to a cartoon depicting Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear in The Washington Post in 1902. Around the same time, Brooklyn candy shop owner and inventor Morris Michtom also began making and selling teddy bears in Roosevelt's honor.

    Steiff says the cartoon played a major role in the toy's success. Five years after Steiff made its first bear, the company produced nearly 980,000 bears and 1.7 million toys. Still, the company isn't sure what happened to Bear 55PB.

    "Someone may have it, and not even know it," said Simone Pürckhauer, director of the Steiff Museum, which is located in Giengen, and public relations. That may be because the animals' trademark buttons in their ears didn't appear until 1904.

    Collecting and gifting Steiffs have become a tradition for people all over the world, and fans still make the pilgrimage to the factory, often bringing their own well-loved bears for repair or "to show them where they were born," Pürckhauer said. Visitors are able to watch how the bears are made by hand and tour some of the company's oldest and most storied stuffed animals.

    One of Pürckhauer's favorite pieces in the museum collection is a rabbit from a collector, Edith Grüner, who left the stuffed animal to Steiff after her death in 2010, along with a letter. The three-foot-tall rabbit was given to Grüner as a child during World War II, and when the family fled Germany, the rabbit went with her. Grüner and her husband never had children, but they always considered the rabbit to be like a child, Pürckhauer said. It was with her when she died.

    Since 1997, Steiff has hosted a three-day festival for fans and collectors. This July, more than 30,000 people from around the world attended the festival in Giengen. The annual event includes an auction of rare stuffed Steiffs.

    This year's festival set a record for antique teddy bears — the Steiff Titanic Bear Othello from 1912 sold for more than $196,000. Only a few hundred were made to honor those who died on the Titanic.

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