Saturday, February 4, 2017

Game On With This Unusual And Uncatalogued Steiff Mosaic Ball

With the Superbowl just hours away, many people (at least in the United States) are getting ready to watch one the largest sporting events in the world on TV.  In keeping with the theme of "fun and games," Steiffgal thought it would be the perfect time to take a closer look at an unusual and vintage piece of Steiff "sporting equipment" - a soft ball designed for children's play.  

Let's toss up some basic facts about this Steiff rarity.  Steiffgal purchased this brown beauty at a recent Teddy Dorado auction. The ball itself is 15 cm in diameter and is made from a total of 12, five sided pentagons which are sewn together to make the rounded shape; Steiff calls this their "Mosaic Ball" design. It was described in the catalog as follows: 

"Room & gym ball from the 5 square mosaic fields; four fields are made of dark brown mohair; two fields are made of blond wool mohair; two fields are made of raw white & yellow silk plush; two fields are each different brownish patterned wool mohair; plump & stuffed with wood wool; without Steiff character from Manufactory; with a few bald areas; clean, non-fading & odor-free; overall very well received; Communication without proof of catalog... made without bell or rattle... probably made during or shortly after the Second World War from existing fabric remnants and not intended originally for sale... consignment from  Giengen/Brenz, Germany."

The fabric selections on this particular example, including mohair, artificial silk plush, and wool plush, perfectly align with its estimated date of production.  It is possible that this example was designed as a prototype for an item that never went into full scale production.  But it is more probable, given its origins from a consignor in Giengen, that it was created by an industrious Steiff seamstress on one of her breaks or even at home; these sorts of "one off" pieces are often referred to as "whimsies" or "end of day" items in the antique industry.  The most interesting fabric on this ball is a tan wool plush decorated with what appears to be hand-airbrushed black, brown, and orange spots.  Steiffgal does not recognize this fabric from any other Steiff item.  Have you seen it before?  

In a round-about way, balls designed for play have been part of the Steiff program since the late 19th century. Perhaps their earliest cataloged appearance was in 1892, when felt covered wooden balls were included with the company's standard skittle sets.  Steiff also made soft play balls for children in felt and mohair through the early 19-teens.  All of these earliest balls were designed in two or three colors and were constructed in wedges, like today's beach balls.  You can see two of these early felt skittle set balls here on the right; the photo is from Morphy Auctions.

Let's piece together what happened next. In around 1912, Steiff debuted its "Mosaic Ball" pattern. This ingenious design turned out to be the perfect blend of geometry, visual interest, and material efficiency.  The shape naturally takes form from the way the pentagons are stitched together. Its presentation can include up to twelve different colors, although Steiff traditionally used two pentagons each of white, red, black, blue, yellow, and green mohair.  And in terms of production efficiency, this pattern is ideal, and can incorporate the "left over" and scrap fabric from other items being produced.  From their introduction onward, Steiff frequently featured its Mosaic Balls in its advertising. This is understandable, given their festive and attractive appearance as well as popularity.  You can see a Steiff advertisement from 1912 featuring its Mosaic Balls here on the left, the photo is from Ayers and Harrison's Advertising Art of Steiff Teddy Bears and Playthings. 

Steiff's Mosaic Balls had a practically seamless, almost seventy year long appearance in the line. Pre-war, the company's standard line Mosaic Ball was produced in 13 sizes ranging from 6 to 35 cm from 1912 through 1943 overall.  This pattern was also incorporated into a hanging toy for a baby's crib from 1913 through 1917, and as a "catch toy" on an elastic string from 1914 through 1918.  Just after World War I, when mohair was scarce, Steiff produced its Mosaic Ball design in felt as well as substitute plush; in the early 1930's the ball was produced in lighter pastel colors as well. Once the factory reopened for toy making business in the late 1940's, this beloved pattern again appeared in the catalog in five sizes ranging from 15 to 25 cm from 1950 through 1982.

Steiffgal hopes you've enjoyed kicking around the history of Steiff's delightful play balls.

Have a question about one of your Steiff treasures? Let's talk! Click here to learn more.

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