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In which John discusses the extraordinary life of Margarete Steiff and the invention of stuffed animals.
I first learned about Margarete Steiff while researching the (genuinely astonishing) history of teddy bears; you can listen to my essay on them here: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/anthropocene-reviewed/episodes/anthropocene-reviewed-teddy-bears-and-penalty-shootouts

History is both a story of individual people making choices, and a story of systems interacting, and stuffed animals are for me a way into glimpsing some of the complex interplays that create historical change.

Special thanks to my son Henry for suggesting this video idea!

Also thanks to Rosianna for help with images.

p.s. gentle reminder that educational videos are allowed to be over 4 minutes long.

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Good Morning, Hank. It's Tuesday.

So, important inventions are almost always created not by individuals but by broad collaborations involving lots of people building knowledge and systems. 

Like, Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb, and it's common these days to hear, "Well, actually someone else invented the lightbulb". But no, the solution to wrongly worshiping individuals is not to change which individuals you worship. 

The truth is, no one invented the lightbulb. It was invented over many decades of collaboration and competition among many people, and that is almost always what drives human change. But the work individuals do still matters, as do the choices they make. And to explore how both systems and individuals can matter at the same time, I would like to introduce you to this lady, Margarete Steiff, who invented the stuffed animal, sort of.

Margarete Steiff was born in 1847, in a small town in southern Germany, and before she was two years old, she contracted polio, which paralyzed her legs and also caused profound weakness in her right arm. Margarete and her two sisters went to school until they were teenagers, which was quite uncommon for their time, and then they enrolled in sewing school, which was somewhat less uncommon.

Due to her limited use of her right hand, Margarete really struggled with sewing. She would later write that her two sisters "were so capable and talented, where I seemed to make every mistake that was possible to make. They gave up hoping that I would produce anything worthwhile with my needle." And it is here that Margarete's life intersects with two much larger trends.

First, a musical instrument called the zither was becoming very popular in Europe. Like, this was around the the time that Johann Strauss the second was writing solos explicitly for the zither. Now Margarete's muscle weakness made it difficult to play the violin or the piano, but she had a wonderful ear for music and she could play the zither by bracing her right hand against the instrument. She became a very accomplished zither player and then started teaching zither lessons, and used the money from those lessons to purchased the very first sewing machine that her little town in Germany had ever seen. She re-fashioned the machine so that she could work primarily with her left hand and then suddenly she could sew despite her disability. 

At this point, she was in her mid twenties and Margarete began a successful tailoring business with her sisters, but she loved fashion and it was a little bit of a bummer just to be like, tailoring pants all day long. So she began sewing and selling ready-made clothing, especially these underskirts made with felt, a soft textile that had made its way to Europe via Central Asia. Her clothing became so successful that she eventually opened up a factory and branched out into women's dresses and children's coats, all made out of felt, which was so soft and cuddly and warm. 

So by now Margarete is in her early thirties, and to keep track of fashions, she subscribes to all these different magazines and newspapers that print patterns of clothing and other stuff that you can sew. And one day in 1879, she's looking through a magazine and comes across a pattern called "Elephant of Cloth". Margarete later wrote, "Felt was the ideal material for this toy, and the filling would be of the finest lamb's wool." She was big on quality, often saying, "Only the best is good enough for children."  

These initial felt elephants were quite small. They resembled, and were often used as, pin cushions, and Margarete mostly made them for friends and family. She only sold eight of them in 1880. But pretty soon she was making more stuffed animals, often working from patterns she would find in magazines. She made donkeys and dogs and lions and bears and even parrots. Again, though, most of these designs were not invented by Margarete; they came from places that published patterns. What Margarete saw was that lots of people lacked the time or the resources or the expertise to make their own stuffed animals, so she would do the work for you, and probably better than you could do it. And soon a stuffed animal from Steiff became a popular children's gift because they were relatively cheap, and also because they were sturdy, especially compared to the porcelain dolls that were the most popular, like, 'proper' plaything at the time. 

By 1890, eleven years after she made that first elephant, Margarete Steiff's company was selling over 5,000 stuffed animals per year. She then expanded internationally and things really took off just after the turn of the 20th century, with the introduction of the first Steiff teddy bear. By 1907, when Margarete was sixty, her company employed over 2,000 people and was making over a million stuffed animals per year. 

Margarete died just a couple years later, of pneumonia, but the company survived. In fact, over a hundred years later, they still make some of the cutest and cuddliest stuffed animals around.

Like the rest of us, Margarete Steiff was a product of circumstance. Had her parents lacked the resources to educate their daughters, or had the sewing machine not been invented, or had the zither not become popular, or had she not developed an expertise with felt, or had those magazines not published those animal patterns, she would not today be remembered as the inventor of the stuffed animal. And of course in all those alternate histories, stuffed animals probably would still have been invented around the same time, just as light bulbs would still exist even if Edison and Tesla never had. 

Considering the circumstances and systems that drive historical change helps us to understand why those changes occurred, but it is also a window into understanding who ends up in a position to benefit from those changes. Part of what makes the history of stuffed animals so important, I think, is that it's one of the few places where a disabled woman in 19th century Europe could succeed in business.

But at the same time, we must make space for the individual choices that also help drive historical change. Margarete Steiff saw the potential of ready-made soft toys for children, she made excellent ones, and as her business grew, she was very careful to hire extremely talented people. She attracted and retained those employees, in part, by treating them much better than most other businesses at the time. Her tireless focus on quality control ensured that Steiff stuffed animals looked and felt better than their competitors. And her tremendous self belief helped her to persevere when society, and even her friends, doubted her ability to become a musician, or to sew, or to run a large corporation.

So, here's to perseverance and to stuffed animals. Thanks, Margarete.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.