Friday, May 28, 2010

Give A Hand to Steiff For These Great Vintage Puppets!

Hands in the air!  The wonderful long weekend that heralds summer has finally arrived here in the USA!  To celebrate this most welcomed seasonal occurrence - usually accompanied by "hands on" gardening and BBQing -  let's take a look at some of Steiff's finest handiwork, puppets from the 20th century! This article originally appeared awhile back in Teddy Bear and Friends, Steiffgal's favorite collector's publication. If you are not a subscriber, sign up today!

Primarily known for their classic and endearing Teddies, animals, and dolls, Steiff also has a vibrant legacy of creating charming and beautifully made hand puppets. Some designs are based on popular Steiff patterns, some reflect heroes and heroines from folk tales and traditions, while others are original products of sheer creativity. As a lifelong collector and student of the Steiff brand, Steiffgal has always been fascinated by classic vintage Steiff hand puppets – those produced from the turn of the 20th century through the end of the 1960’s. So, let’s put a spotlight on some of these great players from Steiff’s “golden era” of producing hand puppets!

First, let’s get on the same page of the program about what Steiffgal means by pre-1970’s “hand puppets”. Most interestingly, the basic design of these puppets hasn’t changed since their debut almost a century ago. They all are basically 17 cm, plus or minus a bit. Most have a relatively simple “glove-like” body with two floppy unjointed arms. Almost all have a hollow but hard, fully detailed, excelsior stuffed head. To use the puppet, a person would insert their hand into the glove, put their pinky into one arm, their thumb into the other, and their middle finger into the hollow head, which is supported by a cardboard tube up the center.

Now onto the puppets themselves. Although the first Steiff catalog was produced in 1892, Steiffgal's research shows that hand puppets did not appear in these publications until 1911. However, the designs for a puppet bear, cat, and dog had all been registered in a German patent office since 1909. Steiff used the adjective “Punch” to describe their earliest puppets; perhaps in reference to the traditional “Punch and Judy” puppet shows which regularly appeared across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. The earliest Steiff puppets produced included punch bear, punch Charles (a King Charles Spaniel), punch cat, punch fox, punch chimp, and punch fox terrier. Each was made from mohair and based on the most popular animals in the line at the time. Pictured on the left is a series of early punch chimps from 1911 onward.

Many of Steiff’s most beloved classic characters were “born” in the 1920’s, so it is not surprising that most of them were produced as hand puppets around the end of that “roaring” decade. This allowed the company to meet the public’s growing demand for these wonderful “branded” characters as well as to expand their audience for these items. Models that made the transition from toy to hand puppet include Molly the puppy, Bully the bulldog, Petsy the blue eyed baby bear, Teddy baby, Siamy the Siamese cat, and Treff the bloodhound. As these items were all made for active play, very few have survived to this day; all are considered treasures and exceptionally rare – especially in good condition!

Steiff had the license to manufacture several internationally known characters in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Two of these included Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. Of course, Steiff seized the opportunity to produce each as a hand puppet as well! Felix the Cat was produced from 1925 through 1926; he was 20 cm and made from felt and mohair. A 24 cm velvet Mickey Mouse was produced from 1931 through 1933. Both are extremely rare today and coveted among vintage Steiff collectors, puppet fans, as well as Felix and Mickey aficionados.

The early post war years were a time of great creativity at Steiff, and this energy and “out of the box” thinking is evident in their hand puppet designs, too. The word “Hand” was substituted for “Punch” when describing these puppets manufactured after 1949, perhaps to “rebrand” the line as a modern plaything. As expected, production resumed on several pre-war hand puppet classics, including Jocko the monkey, Teddy baby, Molly the puppy, and a tabby cat. However, many new named designs were introduced as well, including Sarras the boxer, an updated Foxy fox terrier and Bully the bulldog, Dally the Dalmatian, Wittie the owl, Loopy the wolf, Snobby the poodle, Gaty the crocodile, Mungo the baboon, and Leo the lion. These “new designs” were made as toys as well as puppets; all were made of mohair. Steiff also introduced the first PVC/rubber headed puppets in the early 1950’s; these debut items included a dwarf, Santa Claus, and Mecki hedgehog. Most of these items were produced in large quantities and were distributed broadly; as a result they are relatively accessible to collectors today. 

In addition to these post war hand puppets, Steiff also briefly produced a new style of mohair puppet from 1958 through 1959. Called “Mimic”; these items were five finger hand puppets with four posable limbs and a movable mouth. Three models were produced: a 28 cm Mimic dally Dalmatian, a 28 cm Mimic Biggie beagle, and a 17 cm Mimic Tessie Schnauzer (pictured to the left with a 1960's-era Peky Pekingese puppet). Their short appearance may have been the product of a complicated and expensive manufacturing process and less than expected sales. As a result, the short supply of these puppets translates into a high demand among collectors. 

The 1960’s were a very playful era at Steiff in terms of hand puppets. Several more “unconventional” designs were introduced, including Hucky, a black raven; Hopsi the squirrel; Peky, the Pekingese; a penguin; a rooster; and a hen (pictured here on the left). Surprisingly, several hand puppets from this decade – despite their relative “newness” – top the “wish list” of many Steiff collectors. These include Snaky Snake, a gloriously airbrushed puppet with an unusual snap mouth and felt tongue; Sneba, or Snowman, a white dralon snowman with a carrot nose, a black top hat, and “coal” buttons; and Blacky the Chimney Sweep, a rubber headed character with a black mohair body, black top hat, and ladder. Each was produced for less than two years. As a result, they always generate a lot of interest when they come up for sale.

For a firsthand account by Claire Steiff Meisel - the granddaughter of Richard Steiff - on her experience in the Steiff factory as a child helping to make some of these classic puppets, please click here!

You’ve got to hand it to Steiff, whatever they do, they do it just right. Steiffgal hopes you give thumbs up to this salute to vintage Steiff hand puppets… and a high five to the creative teams at Steiff who brought these precious playthings to life over the years. 

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