Saturday, May 24, 2014

Do You Believe In The Steiff Supernatural?

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 the museum."

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. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Snap To It And Check Out This Truly Remarkable Steiff Dicky Bear!

Steiffgal hates to be bossy... but she totally encourages you to SNAP TO IT and take a look at an exceptional Steiff Teddy on offer at the upcoming James D. Julia Antique Advertising, Toy, and Doll auction event on June 13, 2014.  This item, produced only as a prototype, is as interesting as it is rare.  Let's take a look at this utterly dandy Dicky Bear and see what makes him so fascinating from the design and historical perspectives.

It's hard not to get bent out of shape over this Steiff "Snap Dicky" Teddy bear. Dicky is 30 cm, made from golden blond mohair and stands on two flat feet.  He is head and arm jointed. His face is detailed with an inset muzzle, brown and black pupil eyes, a brown hand stitched nose, and three stitches to his lower lip. Like many Dicky bears, he has peach colored velvet pads with stenciled paw prints.  But here's where it gets interesting... very, very interesting!  Snap Dicky has spring joints on his hands, feet, legs, and mouth, meaning that they were designed to have movement and snap back and forth into different playful positions.  And, just when you thought things could not get any better with this rarity, they do!  Snap Dicky further comes to life with a working tail turns head mechanism.  A little research reveals that this bear is one of six known examples, three of which are in the Steiff archive.  Snap Dicky retains his long trailing “F” style button and traces of his red ear tag as his Steiff ID.  Steiff Dicky does not appear in the standard Steiff reference books;  and it is best estimated that he was produced in the circa 1933 to 1936 time frame.

Dicky's unusual jointing was an experiment in the Steiff line that lasted about as long as a finger-snap.  In the early 1930's, Steiff introduced its tail moves head mechanism, which gave their toys movement, interest, and premium status in the line.  Steiff selected some of their most popular items of the time for this feature, including dogs, rabbits, and cats.  The way this worked was when the tail was shifted gently to the right or the left, the head would shake in tandem. To build on this "movement momentum," Steiff experimented with a handful of "snap" style items, which had internal metal joints which allowed these top tier toys further flexibility in their body positioning.  

From what Steiffgal can tell, four such "snap" models were produced. The first, of course, is this wonderful Snap Dicky.  There is little published historical information on him, consistent with his prototype status.  The second, and perhaps best known, was a 30 cm brown mohair Circus Bear with disk jointed arms, leg snap joints, and a tail moves head mechanism.  He was in the line from 1935 through 1939 and approximately 897 models were manufactured.  The third was a grey or white mohair Circus Elephant with disk jointed arms, leg and mouth snap joints, and a tail moves head mechanism.  Like Snap Dicky, he had velvet paws with stenciled pads.  He was produced in 25 and 28 cm from 1931 through 1940 and approximately 1,040 models were manufactured. Circus Elephant is pictured above along with an xray of his amazing (for the time) snap jointing system.  This photo is from Cieslik's excellent book, Button in Ear The History of the Teddy Bear and His Friends.    

The fourth snap item was called "Dream Baby No. 103" and is so rare that Steiffgal had not even heard of it until doing research for this post.  According to Cieslik...

"The head was made by the Rheinische Gummi Co. (turtle mark) and filled with excelsior.  The body was in good quality felt, and the doll had a "Mama" voice box. The doll had the new jointing in the legs, so that it could assume both sitting and standing positions.  Four versions of the doll were made - all 11 inches tall, with white skirts, colored sweaters and caps:  "Greta" in light green; "Blonda" in light blue; "Rose" in pink; and "Angeli" in orange.  (1934 - 1937 - total production = 4,553."  "Rose" is pictured here on the left; the photo is also from Cieslik.

Even though these snap items were long on appeal, they lasted a short time in the Steiff catalog.  And why would that be?  It is Steiffgal's best guess that alot had to do with timing, finances, and supply and demand factors.  It is possible that towards the later part of the 1930's, the materials needed to manufacture these toys were becoming scarce or even rationed based on the geo-political realities of the time.  Additionally, these treasures were quite complicated to manufacture and required a great deal of time and resources to do so.  As a result, they were undoubtedly quite expensive to purchase.  As such, given the economic situation across the region, demand may not have been terribly high and Steiff may have determined that it did not make financial sense to continue production of these top-tier items. 

Despite their brief - if at all - appearances in the line, Steiff has created relatively recent replicas of their Snap Dicky, Circus Bear, and Circus Elephant rarities. A blond Snap Dicky was produced in 1996 in an edition size of 5,000, a brown Circus bear was produced in 1994 in an edition size of 4,000, and a novel orange tipped Circus Elephant was produced in 2009 in an edition size of 1,000. Each would be a delightful addition to any Steiff collection!

Steiffgal hopes this discussion on Steiff's wonderful and rare metal jointed items from the 1930's - including this remarkable prototype Dicky - has added a little snap, crackle, and pop to your day!

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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Helen Ratkai is THE Steiff Couturiere!

A Ratkai Steiff Elephant
Hey good looking! Of course, that refers to all Steiff collectibles... and collectors, too! Steiff has a long tradition of dressing their fine creations in lovely and well-tailored attire since the turn of last century when the company introduced their first felt dolls around 1903. In the 1950's, a series of glamorously dressed Steiff animals began appearing in the fine toy and department stores like FAO Schwarz and Lord and Taylor. But they were not costumed by Steiff, but by a New York City artist named Helen Ratkai. Let's learn a little bit more about her creative work, and how it continues to inspire Steiff lovers - and even philanthropy - even today!

Helen's Steiff creations were gorgeous, one of a kind treasures. Although each one was distinct, most were based on standard line 1950's era small or medium sized Steiff animals, including dogs, cats, horses, zebras, monkeys, lambs, and other familiar farm, forest, and jungle friends. Ratkai hand dressed each Steiff treasure to the nines in elegant and designer-quality skirts, dresses, blouses, or other clothing; all were made from the finest silk, velvets, laces, and fabric ribbons. Many had hats, handbags, jewelry, and other fashionable accessories, often detailed with flowers, sequins, and beading. Perhaps the only commonality between Helen's items were their identification: each bore a tag reading "Helen Ratkai is my couturiere" stitched somewhere unobtrusively on the item's outfit; a sample of this tag is pictured here on the left.

An article published December 20, 1957 in the Sarasota (FL.) Herald Tribune featured a profile of Ratkai and her elegant animal creations.  It read in part...

A Ratkai Steiff Lamb
"FAO Schwarz, the fabulous toy store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, sells toys for grown-ups which include a smoking monkey at $295, a drinking bear for $195, and a cat that knits.  Another "adults only" group is the stuffed animal dressed up to look like a person. These are small but "too sophisticated and delicate for children," said Helen Ratkai, an artist who started the line dressing animals for her nieces, aged 5 and 12. The idea caught on with grown-ups, and today she sells these animals in the United States, South America, Bermuda, and Hawaii. The Duchess of Windsor has a Ratkai-gowned rabbit and the Eisenhower's have an elephant. 

A Ratkai Steiff Dog
"People buy the animals because they look like real people - friends or relatives. But no one is offended by the gift. After all, you never think they look like you - always someone else," she said. Mrs. Ratkai's creatures wear creations of French ribbons and Swiss lace, velvet, satin, and taffeta. They sport long, dangling earrings, fur stoles, and giddy bonnets trimmed with birds, bees, and flowers. They carry jeweled evening bags, beaver muffs, and parasols. "I try to follow fashion, mainly in fabrics and hats. Elephants are the hardest to dress because they're so fat and always seem to look best in pink and blue. Monkeys are easiest because they're the funniest. They make a good try at being elegant," said Couturier Ratkai. The inspiration for her designs is "Tony," a black French poodle "who lets me put anything on him and sits in the only chair in the workshop." Why do her animals sell? "Well," she said, "they make people laugh. And nowadays we need something to cheer us up." 

Ratkai's animal fashion plates are "cover girls" to many Steiff collectors, even today. Some even specialize in Helen's unique treasures. One such collector is Cathleen Smith Bresciani, designer, philanthropist, and author of the children's book Sassafrass Jones and the Search for a Forever Home, which features vintage Steiff items in its cast of characters.  Steiffgal had the pleasure of sharing her story with readers awhile back.

A Smith Bresciani Ratkai Inspired Wild Boar
Bresciani has dozens of Ratkai Steiff originals displayed all over her home, and the artist's dressed animals have provided a lifetime's worth of creative inspiration for her. So much so, that Cathleen has just launched a fundraising project for one of her favorite nonprofits - Canine Companions for Independence - inspired by Ratkai's beloved dressed characters. Canine Companions is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. To help raise money for CCI, Cathleen has created a limited series of vintage Steiff animals that she has personally dressed in one-of-a kind Ratkai-inspired outfits, hats, and accessories.  She has graciously donated her materials, time, and talent towards this initiative, and all proceeds from the sale of these items will go directly to CCI. The first group of these highly collectible treasures has just been listed on Steiffgal's Vintage Museum Marketplace on Ruby Lane, and it goes without saying that Steiffgal is thrilled to partner with Cathleen on this worthwhile and exciting charitable project.  An example of one of Cathleen's Ratkai-themed dressed Steiff animals - a "prom-worthy" piglet - is pictured here on the left.  Take a look at the others when you can!

Steiffgal hopes this discussion on Helen Ratkai's dressed Steiff animals has been a black tie affair for you.

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

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Keeping Things Balanced With This One Legged Steiff Studio Grey Heron

It's important to keep things balanced when it comes to Steiff, right?  Well, no vintage collectible better demonstrates that then this fantastic and lifelike Steiff studio bird!  Check out this "one-legged wonder" and see what makes him so interesting from the design and historical perspectives.

This great and unusual Steiff bird is really on solid footing, despite what you might think!  This studio, or life sized, Grey Heron is 50 cm tall, unjointed, and standing on one leg.  He is primarily made from short white plush and short grey plush.  He is brought to life with stenciled felt wings; long grey and white plush "feathering" on his back, chest, and head; and a long, thin yellow trivera velvet beak.  His pert face is detailed with light green and black pupil eyes and a black plush "bandit style" mask across his forehead. And of course, you can't help but notice his authentic, yellow trivera legs (or in this case, leg!) with its prominent, distinct "knee" and large four toed foot. This Grey Heron was made from 1980 through 1984 in this size only.  He is pictured from three angles in the photo above.

This big bird has a leg up in a few areas over his other Steiff bird cousins.  First of all, this is the only Grey Heron (or any heron at all) that Steiff has ever produced in the line - at least as far as Steiffgal can find.  It is also the only one legged bird Steiff has ever produced - again, as far as Steiffgal knows of.  Although this bird only has one leg, it does have a second foot which is attached to his body.  You can see how Steiff did this in a realistic manner in the photo here on the left - as if he were "tucking" his long leg under his wing. And, in case you are wondering, he really can balance on one leg - given there are no strong drafts or wandering pets within a three foot radius of him!

It is Steiffgal's best guess that this "tall drink of water" is a variation on the company's somewhat better known two legged white studio stork.  That traditional bundle-of-joy-bearer is 50 cm tall, unjointed, standing and made from short, white woven fur and long, white tufted plush. He has very subtle light blue airbrushing on his forehead and wings and sports black trivera velvet feathers on the tips of his white wings. He has delightful, posable red trivera velvet legs.  Each foot has four red trivera "toes." His face is detailed with brown and black pupil eyes and a red trivera velvet beak. Like Steiff's studio Grey Heron, this studio stork was manufactured from 1980 through 1984; he is pictured here on left.

Steiffgal hopes this discussion on Steiff's one-legged Grey Heron makes you want to stand up and cheer!

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