When most collectors think of the Steiff brand, button-in-ear Teddy bears and magnificent felt dolls come to mind. However, the company also has a lesser known prewar legacy of producing delightful novelties. For the most part, these “theme and variation” items were based on popular designs and characters of the day – but with a playful twist. Some were functional – like egg and tea cozies – while others were entertaining – like roly polys and pram toys. Given their limited time in production and great appeal, they are seldom seen on the secondary market and are of great interest to most doll and toy collectors today. Here is a brief overview of some of Steiff’s major novelty categories through the early 1940s. All photos are from the author’s personal collection.
Hold everything! Yes, Steiff ‘s prewar production did include delightful animal purses. They ranged in sizes from 17 to 29 cm overall. They were not specifically designed for children, but their petite proportions suggest that they were designed to hold few or very small things! The first Steiff purses were produced starting in 1927; designs included Jocko the Chimp, Petsy the baby bear, Bully the bulldog, and Molly the puppy. Items were modified to have a hollow back pocket to hold purse-related items. This pocket was lined in silk or velvet, and closed with a zipper. In some cases the zipper had a pull, in others it had a circular round handle. As time went on, Steiff added additional characters to its purse line, including Strupp the fox terrier, Treff the bloodhound, and even Pip, the cartoon dog, as late as 1941.
Purse Show and Tell:
Here we have a nice example of Steiff’s Charly the King Charles Spaniel purse. This item was produced in 22 and 25 cm from 1927 through 1940. He is lined in lime green velvet and retains his original Steiff button and red ear tag. It is interesting to note that this purse was reissued as a North American Limited edition replica in 2005.
Now let’s shake it up a bit and talk about rattles made by Steiff. These are usually pint sized products that make a little “click click” sound when jiggled about. I have handled rattle bears, dogs, cats, squirrels, and lambs, but other versions are sure to exist. Steiff rattle items share a similar construction of having a small sealed glass tube filled with beads inserted into their torsos. Rattles were made from the smallest or almost smallest versions of Steiff’s most popular designs. Not much is formally documented about Steiff’s rattle production, but it is my best guess that rattles were in the line from about 1906 through the early 1930s.
Rattle Show and Tell:
This white mohair Teddy rattle stands 10 cm tall and is fully jointed. Her face is detailed with black glass eyes and a brown hand embroidered nose and mouth. Because of her petite proportions, her hands and feet do not have felt paws. She is stuffed with excelsior and has a rattle in her belly. It is estimated that she was produced in the 1912 through 1925 time frame.
3. Tail Turns Head Animals
Let’s move right on to Steiff’s dynamic “tail moves head” creatures. These precious pets were made with an internal metal movement mechanism. When their tails were gently twisted back and forth, their heads moved in unison – giving them a most charming sense of realistic movement. They appeared in the line from the early 1930s through the early 1940s overall. Steiff’s early “action super heroes” included cats, dogs, rabbits, and lambs, among others. Each came with a round cardboard tag on its tail that read “turn here and I will move my head.” Tail turns head items were considered higher end, luxury toys of the time.
Tail Turns Head Show and Tell:
Perhaps the best known, and most popular Steiff tail moves head model is the company’s Rattler Rat Terrier. Overall, this blue-ribbon beauty was produced in eight sizes ranging from 8 to 35 cm in the 1930 through 1943 time period. This pocket pooch is the 10 cm version. He is sitting, head jointed, and excelsior stuffed. He is made from mohair with grey highlights. His charming and authentic beard and eyelashes are made from longer mohair with a tan/orange cast to it. His face is detailed with lovely almond shaped tri-colored glass eyes and a black hand embroidered nose and mouth.
You gotta give a hand to Steiff for their playful prewar puppets. The vast majority of them were 17 cm, plus or minus a bit, with relatively simple “glove-like” body with two floppy unjointed arms. They had hard, fully detailed, excelsior stuffed heads. To use the puppet, a person would insert their hand into the glove, put their pinky into one arm, their thumb into the other, and their middle finger into the hollow space in the head, which was supported by a cardboard tube up the center. The first Steiff puppet, a 17 cm blonde Teddy bear, appeared in 1911; he was so successful that a cat, fox, monkey, and King Charles Spaniel quickly followed suit.
Puppet Show and Tell:
I got a call from a new friend who purchased “a bunch of old toys” at a flea market the previous weekend. She reported that they all appeared to be very old, with Steiff buttons in their ears. We got together shortly after to go through her finds. The first thing out of the bag was this utterly breathtaking bright orange and white mohair and velvet Bully the Bulldog puppet. Even more astonishing was the fact he retained his original horsehair collar – one of the accessories Steiff used on their Bully dogs to indicate their “regal” status. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to add this remarkable example to my Steiff hug. This Bully puppet appeared in the line from 1927 through 1931 overall.
5. Other Playful Novelties
With Steiff’s legacy tagline being “Only The Best For Our Children,” it should be no surprise that the company experimented with numerous other novelty designs to bring joy and happiness to kids during the first half of the 20th century. Pull toys – first appearing on metal wheels, then wooden wheels – were a mainstay in the catalog since it debuted in 1892. Characters on wheeled “Irish Mail Carts” that pumped their arms as they were pulled along have delighted kids of all ages since their debut in 1912. The first Steiff puppet, a 17 cm blonde Teddy bear, appeared in 1911; he was so successful that a cat, fox, monkey, and King Charles Spaniel quickly followed suit. And other prewar Steiff novelties like pajama bags, snap jointed characters, baby ball toys, skittles, and tumblers are as desirable and exciting today for collectors as they were for children when they were gifted new over a century ago.
Novelty Show and Tell:
This head-spinning rarity is Steiff’s Swing Duck. She is made from yellow mohair with a double thick felt orange beak and single thick orange felt legs and feet. She has black button eyes which are backed by red felt circles. Her body is unjointed and of a relatively simple design – she appears to be playfully swimming along given the way her legs and feet are angled backwards. Duck is connected to an approximately 6″ long brown hardwood handle. With a simple wrist rotation, the duck swings along merrily in a circle and makes a whistling sound while doing so. Swing duck was produced in yellow and white mohair in 10 and 12 cm from 1924 through 1943.
About the Author
Rebekah Kaufman is a third generation lifelong Steiff enthusiast. Her personal collection of vintage Steiff treasures numbers north of 1,200. Rebekah’s German grandmother kindled her love for the brand over four decades ago, and today Rebekah is the proud steward of many of her Oma’s Steiff treasures.
Rebekah’s blog, My Steiff Life, focuses on vintage Steiff finds, Steiff antiquing and travel adventures, international Steiff happenings, and the legacy and history of the Steiff company. It has been updated weekly since 2009 and can be found at http://mysteifflife.blogspot.com. Her book, Sassafrass Jones and Her Forever Friends ABCs, features vintage Steiff as an integral part of the storyline. It was co-authored by Cathleen Smith-Bresciani, a fellow Steiff enthusiast. The book, ISBN #978-0-578-15002-4, is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Rebekah truly leads “The Steiff Life.”
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