The great bear market began with the birth of an indomitable spirit in 1847. Wheel chair bound from polio, but determined to overcome her handicap, Margarete Steiff began a seamstress shop in 1877, specializing in ready-made felt clothing. Not only was the young woman forced to use a hand-driven sewing machine, she had to learn to use it backwards because her right hand was lame. Despite the odds, her business succeeded. In 1880, Margarete fabricated eight sturdy wool elephants intended to be used as pin cushions. Such a wool-felt piece was unusual and innovative at the time. Children discovered it could used as a toy. Soon, there were demands for more.
A few years later, Margarete was running a mail-order company selling thousands of stuffed elephants, donkeys, pigs, and camels. Some were fitted with wheels so they could be pulled by a string. Hoping to expand the business, Margarete's nephew left art school in 1897 to join the firm. Richard Steiff must have been discouraged as he was packing up his aunt's soft toys that he had been displaying at the big toy show in Leipzig, Germany, March 1903. The mohair bears with movable head, legs, and arms, designed by he and his aunt from sketches he made at the zoo, met with little enthusiasm.
Then, a miracle happened. At the last minute, a buyer for a New York department store fell in love with the bears and placed an order for 3,000 "Teddy" bears. The Steiff firm, still in existence today, went on to become not only the greatest maker of quality soft toys in history, but an innovator in business as well. They were a pioneer company known for incorporating the use of a trademark; their famous "metal button in the left ear," a slogan; "For our children the best is only good enough.," and for introducing the all-window building which created a well lit working environment. There is debate as to whether Steiff or Ideal Toys made the first teddy, but there is no debate as to the bear most sought after by today's antique collectors-Steiff.
When it comes to recognizing and buying old teddies-beware. Staggering auction prices for choice examples has made counterfeiting a worthwhile endeavor. As with any antique, a high-ticket purchase should be made through an experienced dealer and accompanied by a receipt and guarantee. Pre-W.W.I teddies are more bear-like than later examples; thinner, with long angly limbs, pointed muzzles, and humped backs. By 1955, with the advent of fast food restaurants and cheap honey, Teddy became the rotund, pumpkin-headed, stumpy-limbed, fellow we know today.
Older bears are mostly fashioned from natural materials. Mohair, sheepskin or burlap was used in the animal's plush. Rayon was introduced in 1920's. Nylon after it was invented in 1938. Wood shavings(wood-wool) or kapok was used as early stuffing, and wire-shank or hook-held eyes were made of glass, wood, or metal. All ages of teddies can be found with stitched noses. More unusual examples with gutta-percha(early plastic), tin, or leather sniffers often pre-date W.W.II. Molded rubber and plastic noses appear on post 1950 bears. Wear, tags, and provenance can also be of much help in aging a bear.
Wildlife experts implore that the phrase "bear-hug" is a misnomer. "Bear's do not hug their victims," they say. The error, I think, is that those naturalists misunderstand how the phrase came into being. The "hug" refers to that which we give to our bears, not the other way around.