Sunday 6 September 2020

Soft Toys (1880)

Introduced 1880

The soft toy in all its forms – from teddy bears to more exotic creatures altogether – is a favourite of children the world over and many adults too. And although toys have been found dating back to the earliest human civilizations, earlier examples would tend to be made from wood or whatever materials were available, but although these could be fun to play with they certainly weren’t cuddly.

Generally speaking the invention of the soft toy is attributed to Margarete Steiff in Germany. Steiff was a seamstress who at first noticed that children liked to play with the soft animal-themed pincushions that she made. These were adapted into toys covered in felt and filled with lamb’s wool, first for children of friends and relatives and then sold commercially from her shop in 1880. The first design was reportedly a toy elephant.

Elephant pin cushion in the Steiff Museum

These became a success and Steiff’s business grew and a result, but she always insisted on making the first prototypes herself to make sure that there were no problems. In 1897 her nephew Richard Steiff joined the company and designed a stuffed toy bear which initially was not successful – but then came the teddy bear craze of the early 1900s which Steiff and other manufacturers were happy to supply.

Margarete Steiff became a successful businesswoman, and created the Steiff company which even today is probably the best-known creator of stuffed toys. And she achieved all this despite being crippled with polio from an early age which left her confined to a wheelchair and with limited mobility in one of her arms.

Today Steiff sits at the top end of the soft toy market, which has spawned many other well-known brands. The American Ty company – founded in 1986 – popularised Beanie Babies. Gund is another American company that specialise in mid-range bears and other soft toys that are characteristically understuffed to make them more cuddly. Yet another American company, Build-A-Bear Workshop, allows customers to custom make their own bears in-store and to accessorise them. Many other companies also make bears and soft toys, and there are also small-scale operations that make high-end designer toys made out of premium materials.

Ty Beanies
But a soft toy is more than just a bit of fabric with some stuffing in it. They are companions, faithful friends, a comfort in times of distress and so much more. Bears can be fearless too, recently taking over some of the streets of Paris in the COVID-19 lockdown. They are patient and non-judgmental. And even when they’ve been put away for years at a time, they are still pleased to be with you – no matter how long that might be. And they proliferate. Oh my, do they proliferate.

Les Nounours des Gobelins

Of course, soft toys can be high collectable. At the high end, rare Steiff bears or Ty beanies can sell for tens of thousands of pounds... but these soft toys will probably never be played with or even cuddled. More everyday soft toys can be found all over the place, but often there can be interesting finds in charity shops looking for a new home. Just don’t let them completely take over your house.

Image credits:
Flominator via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Caroline Léna Becker via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
frankieleon via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

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