Do you believe in ghosts? Or more specifically, Steiff ghosts? Either way, Steiffgal suspects that you'll be (super)naturally interested in this most unusual doll that apparently has made mischief on his community and admirers for many decades.
Over the past few years, Steiffgal has gotten numerous inquires about "Robert," a 100 cm, century plus Steiff-like doll that lives at the East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida. This spirited Steiff supposedly wore a harlequin costume when he was new. He is pictured here on the left. Steiffgal has been asked if Robert may have been made by Steiff, and how he may have ended up in Key West, of all places. According to an article by Mandy Bolen, who writes for the Key West Citizen newspaper,
"The straw-filled doll belonged to Key West artist Robert Eugene Otto,
who received the toy as a child when his parents lived in the mansion at
the corner of Eaton and Simonton streets, now known as The Artist
House. It's a regular stop on the ghost tours. .... Otto and the doll became unnervingly close, with
the boy often blaming the doll for mishaps and strange events. The doll eventually began to frighten even his best friend, and was relegated to an attic room.
As the legend goes, Robert the Doll was displeased with his new
accommodations and would taunt schoolchildren from the window as they
walked past the house, so much so that they eventually took a different
route to school.
When Gene Otto inherited the house from his parents, he reunited with
Robert and brought him back downstairs, where their connection was
rekindled, to the chagrin of Otto's wife. She promptly returned the doll to the attic, where he remained until Otto died in the 1970s. Robert now "lives" in a secure glass case at the East Martello Museum,
where he is rumored to ruin photographs and cause unexplained events at
Let's have a happily haunted look at Robert from three perspectives to see if indeed he may have any Steiff connections.
First, take a looonnngggg look at his very tall and thin frame. As many readers know, Steiff has a very strong history of felt dolls, and the first ones appeared 1903. Steiff
produced many felt figures from the early 1900's through the 1930's. In most cases, these models were more reflective of occupations and culture (shepherds,
stone cutters, tailors, butchers, shoemakers, soldiers, students, etc.)
than playful designs for children. Most of these dolls appeared in the
22 to 50 cm size, so this 100 cm doll is quite unusual. However, there is a mention or two in readily available Steiff books about 100 cm dolls, so
there is precedence for something of this scale.
Second, let's make some eye contact, if you dare! Robert's dark eyes are actually
called shoe button eyes and are made from wood that is painted black.
His hair most likely is, or was, made from mohair. Robert's face structure is interesting. You can see the unusual (for Steiff) oval seams around his nose and mouth, horizontal one across his forehead, and the vertical ones above his nose and below is mouth on the photo here on the right. Traditionally, early Steiff felt dolls had a vertical seam down the front of their faces, and that is one key way to identify them. However, there are examples where this is not the case, due to design or scale issues. Steiffgal thinks in this case - given the doll's extreme proportions and early dating - that it would be possible that Steiff could have constructed the face with this interesting seam pattern.
And third, how about his (haunted) history? Of course, there is no way to know exactly how Robert arrived in Key West - a tiny Florida island only 19.17 km² in area. But here are a couple of ideas. If there was a very high end department store, or toy store in the Key West
area at the turn of last century, it is possible that the store purchased him as window display originally at
some point. Or, Robert's family - or family friends - may have ordered him, or received him as a gift from a business associate
from New York or Europe. It is interesting to note that the family's last name, "Otto," is of German or European origin, suggesting that they may have been aware of the Steiff brand and quality given their cultural background.
It's time to ask the Magic 8 ball the hard question: Steiff or not? Well, Steiffgal does not have a crystal ball for guidance... and it is impossible to say with 100% certainty without seeing the piece
firsthand... but the voices in her head are suggesting that Robert was most likely manufactured by Steiff. Given his shoe button style
eyes and general look he was probably made before the 19-teens... perhaps in the roughly 1905 to 1912 timeframe or so. And since Robert Otto was born in 1900, both of these "production dates" align pretty well! Steiffgal also thinks that he was a special order, not a regular line item, and was probably produced as a window display item. In this case, that would mean he was made on the scale of a real person, and was
designed more as a decorative item than anything else. These early display dolls were especially known for spectacular clothing and detailing. So when Robert was
new, he probably had a fantastic costume made of very
high end materials, as well as great shoes, and a matching hat. It is Steiffgal's guess that Robert might have looked something like the large Steiff clown pictured on the left when he left the factory a century or so ago; the photo is from Theriault's.
For more about Robert - if you dare - click here!
Steiffgal hopes this discussion on Robert doesn't keep you up at night!
Have a question about one of your Steiff treasures? Let's talk! Click here to learn more.