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The History of Margarete Steiff

Without Margarete Steiff, the world might have turned out to be a very different place.

Born in a small town in southern Germany and plagued with a lifelong physical disability, Margarete faced surmountable obstacles right from her formative years, but went on to accomplish the impossible anyway. She managed to establish and solidify her brand in a single lifetime - one that continues to be recognized around the world today as the oldest premier teddy bear makers in the world.

Born in Giengen, Germany, Margarete Steiff was met with a tragic fate at 18 months old. Having contracted a grave fever, her eventual recovery left her with a completely paralyzed left foot, partially lame right foot and restricted use of her right hand. She was subsequently diagnosed with Polio at the age of 3 and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. 

Devastated and determined to help their daughter regain the use of her limbs, her parents consulted countless doctors and aggressively sought 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 and/or wheeled for the long and illustrious life that laid ahead of her.

Nevertheless, Margarete remained cheerful, ambitious and resilient; and was even encouraged towards education despite her physical infirmities. As a child, her sisters would take her to school in a small hay cart; upon which a kind woman who lived nearby would then carry her upstairs to her classroom. In spite of the pain in her right hand, Margarete also took up needlework classes, learning dressmaking, knitting, crochet work, embroidery and tailoring. She completed her training as a seamstress at the age of 17; and thereafter, occasionally worked with her sisters who ran a women's tailor.  

Margarete Steiff was also an accomplished Zither player in her teens, and taught others to play as a way of earning extra keep. Over time, her savings allowed her to buy a sewing machine - the first that was ever owned in the town of Giengen - and this presented another income opportunity for her. Margarete started working on clothes for the town folk and by her mid-twenties, she was making fashionable clothes and traveling to other towns to work and visit family, sending her cart ahead of her and traveling by post coach and gratefully accepting the kindness and assistance of strangers along the way.

In 1877, Margarete opened a felt store and began making felt underskirts, which had just become fashionable. The business thrived and she was quickly able to hire help under her name. It was here that she conceptualized the idea of a plush elephant - an animal that would eventually go on to become the trademark of the Steiff brand - and started making elephant-shaped pincushions as gifts for family and friends. 

Though made to be pincushions, Margarete's tiny plushies became so wildly popular that she started making more for sale in her shop. Interestingly, she also discovered that her creations were being more commonly used as toys than as pincushions - partly because they were more durable than the pretty but delicate porcelain dolls of the era; and partly also because they were simply just, cuddlier. She started adding more designs to her line and by the end of the decade, her team was manufacturing nearly 5,500 units annually.

At the urging of her brother, Fritz, Margarete Steiff finally moved into a purpose-built factory in 1889, which had a corner shop where the toys and fabric could be displayed for sale. It was here that she breathed life into the company with its first and only motto:

"For children... only the best is good enough."

Margarete Steiff was famously industrious, creative, and intelligent; with a kindness and sense of leadership that was admired and respected by her staff. By 1907, at the age of 60, she had built a company with more than 400 employees and 1,800 home seamstresses; manufacturing close to 2 million plush toys a year. This was extremely rare for any businessperson at that time, let alone a female  businessperson. 

Her commitment to using only the finest materials also helped put the Steiff brand ahead of the rest. As a means of warding off competitors and cheap knocks-off, a 'Button-In-Ear' (Steiff- Knopf im Ohr) Seal of Approval was invented and every Original Steiff came with a little fabric tag on its ear, held in place by a stainless steel button.

This century-old trademark is still upheld today.

On 9th May 1909, at the age of 62, Margarete Steiff passed 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'. 

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 who would emerge the mainstay of the Steiff family and assume responsibility for all its members. Margarete was never married, but she took it upon herself to take care of all her siblings and their children; often employing them to run the show alongside her. 

To this day, Margarete Steiff is revered as one of the greatest female leaders of the industry - a champion of women in the workforce during a time and place where it was almost unheard of. Her worldwide success brought jobs and security - and ultimately prosperity, to an entire town in Germany. Her professional genius was observed even in the event of her death, where her will and testament guaranteed an uninterrupted continuation of her life’s work.

Margarete’s death was a monumental event for an entire community. Today, she is buried beneath a magnificent tombstone in the Giengen cemetery, where visitors continue to pay respects to one of history’s most successful female visionaries.

The History of Margarete Steiff is a story of a woman who came before us, knocked against the glass ceiling, and made a full-on crack. Her diaries shared wonderful recollections of her enthusiastic spirit, her positive disposition and her brave, peaceful acceptance of 'God’s will' that she would never walk again. With spirit and resolve, she embraced her destiny and surrounded herself with a supportive network of family and friends, displaying no self-pity but nevertheless acknowledging her need to rely on others for mobility.

But her success was not afforded to her without misgivings. Not surprisingly, it was difficult for Margarete to complete her projects as she had limited and painful use of her right hand; and as one of her journal entries stated, “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.”

And yet, she persisted. 

In a time where women were held to different realities and given an outwardly passive role in society, Margarete was a brilliant opportunist backed with people who loved and believed in her. It ultimately led to her endeavoring what might have otherwise been perceived as 'impossible' for a woman of her time, and to take centre stage in a time when woman were not encouraged to be seen. 

Margarete's diaries also share of her gratitude to her parents for not "spoiling her" because of her special needs; but rather, teaching her to "cope with the hardships of life". She was a true equal to her male counterparts - or perhaps even more than; and is a historical testament to the fact that nobody is ever too small, too weak, or too inadequate to do the things they envision- even if it means having to rewrite the rules to do it.

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