Written by ‘Steiffgal’ Rebekah Kaufman for Ruby Lane
As a vintage doll and toy lover, you know the excitement of discovering an early Steiff (button-in-ear) brand Teddy bear on Ruby Lane, at auction, at a show, or even at a garage sale! These antique cubs are universally beloved for their charming, old fashioned looks and irresistible personalities. Steiff launched its debut catalog of playthings in 1892, but it was not until c. 1902-03 that the “modern” five ways jointed Teddy bear as we know it was introduced; he was string jointed. A few months later, Steiff began experimenting with internal metal rod jointing. By 1905, Steiff began manufacturing its jointed bears with a cardboard disc system, a process still used today. These classic Steiff bears proved so beloved that the company would go on to produce them in 14 standard sizes ranging from 10 to 115 cm through the first quarter of the 20th century.
So how do you identify a Steiff Bear from the early 1900’s through 1920? Although dating and authenticating Steiff bears can sometimes be more of an art than a science – given the handmade nature of the items and production variations – following these steps should help you meet that challenge head on.
First, take a look at his material.
The majority of Teddy bears made by Steiff in through the 1920’s were made from blond mohair. Some were produced in white mohair. Far fewer were produced in dark brown, cinnamon, or apricot colored mohair. Just a handful were made in black. Mohair, which became available on a commercial scale in 1903, is a fabric that is made from a base of cotton material that has fine strands of wool woven through it, much like a hooked rug.
Next, check out his general construction.
Steiff’s earliest Teddy bears were stuffed entirely and firmly with excelsior (wood wool.) Starting around 1905 or so, the company sometimes used kapok (a fluffy, natural stuffing) in addition to excelsior in some of their bears to make them lighter and cuddlier. However, the bear’s heads were always stuffed with excelsior to maintain their shape and form. Excelsior makes a “crunchy” noise when hugged or pinched, while kapok is much softer.
Now move on to his jointing.
Steiff’s very first fully jointed bears featured string jointing. However, there is no record of any remaining today. If you think you have found one, contact this author right away! Steiff’s rod joined bears were produced from c. 1904-05. An internal metal “skeleton” allowed them to move their arms, legs, and head. This skeleton is detectable by an x-ray. Steiff’s disk jointed bears debuted in 1905, and the company still uses this basic system today. This consists of round cardboard disks and shorter metal pins that are inserted into the bear as part of the manufacturing process. You can feel round disks both in the limbs and in the torso where the two connect on the bear. Because of their construction process, Rod bears do not have this feature, and this is one “low tech” way of determining the joining system of an antique Steiff bear.
Next, may I see some IDs?
All Steiff animals from 1904 left the factory in Giengen, Germany with a metal button-in-ear. The earliest button, from 1904-1905, has a little elephant on it. The elephant’s trunk is “S” shaped, for Steiff. From late 1905 through 1906, the button is blank. From 1906 through the mid 1930’s, the button has the word “Steiff” with the last “f” in “Steiff” trailing backwards to the letter “e” in “Steiff.” This is called the “long trailing f” button. And from the mid 1930’s through roughly 1950, the button has the word “Steiff” with the last “f” in “Steiff” trailing backwards to the first letter “f” in “Steiff.” This is called the “short trailing f” button.
And now lend me your ear(tag).
The earliest Steiff ear tags are white and made from paper or a light linen material. They appear, or appeared, on items from 1905 through 1926. In 1926, Steiff changed the ear tag color to red. Then in 1934, the ear tag became yellow and remained so until the early 1980’s, when Steiff replaced the fragile material with a more durable cloth version. It is important to note that early Steiff bears in excellent condition don’t need IDs to be valuable and of interest to collectors, but… an early Steiff bear with its button and fully legible white ear tag is an amazing find indeed.
Tag, you’re it!
Although Steiff used a variety of sewn-on cardboard tags on their items from 1897 through 1904, the first wide scale use of Steiff chest tags appeared around 1926. These were in the form of a round white cardboard disk with a metal frame. These appeared through 1928. From 1928, the Steiff chest tag became more colorful and detailed and featured a happy, angular yellow Bear face and the name of the Steiff item printed in red on the tag. This style appeared through 1952.
Now prepare for a face-off!
Steiff’s earliest bears have black wooden, or “shoebutton” eyes that are set deeply into the Bear’s face. From the mid 19-teens, black and brown glass pupil eyes became the “eye” standard. The company’s rod bears have embroidered mouths and black “gutta percha” noses, which are made from a natural black sap. These are irregularly shaped, about the size of a quarter, and usually have dents and fingerprints on their surfaces. Steiff’s disk jointed bears have hand embroidered noses and mouths, as well as claws. Their blonde bears have black stitching while their white bears have brown stitching. The earliest bears have 5 claws per paw while those from about 1906 onward have four claws per paw. Smaller bears have horizontally stitched noses while larger ones have vertically stitched noses.
Steiff’s bears through 1920 generally have relatively long, pointed, shaved snouts. And from a collector’s perspective, the most interesting vintage examples are those with a prominent “center seam” down the middle of their faces. At the turn of last century, every 7th Bear that Steiff made had a seam down the center of his face to make the most efficient use of the expensive mohair fabric.
And finally, be sure to take a measured approach.
The company’s rod bears are known for their solidly stuffed “football” (as in American football) shaped torsos, and many have a distinctly “puppylike” appearance. Things get a little more consistent with the company’s disk jointed bears through 1920. In general, these cubs have torsos that are twice as long as their heads. They have long, narrow limbs. When standing, the fingertips of these bears extend down to their “knees.” Their feet are long and narrow and they are in a ratio of 1:5 to their height. They also have a very pronounced back hump.
All photos taken by author and are from the author’s collection and items sold through Steiffgal’s Vintage Museum Marketplace on Ruby Lane.
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 passion became her vocation when she became the Steiff Club Manager for the North American division of Margarete Steiff GmbH in 2003. A few years later, in 2008, she changed jobs and was appointed to the position she holds today – that of Steiff’s North American archivist. In this role, she leads collector’s events around the country, authors most of the vintage related articles in the biannual Steiff Club Magazine, and authenticates and values vintage Steiff treasures on behalf of the company. In 2014, at James D. Julia Auctioneers in Fairfield, ME, she appraised and cataloged the largest and most important vintage Steiff collection to come to market ever in North America; the sale realized over half a million dollars. Since 2015, she has consulted with Morphy Auctions of Denver, PA as a Steiff and Fine Plush Expert where she identifies, values, and catalogs treasures for the company’s quarterly fine doll and Teddy bear auction events on an as needed basis. Rebekah owns and merchandises Steiffgal’s Vintage Museum Marketplace, the largest online vintage Steiff shop worldwide.
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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