Friday, March 7, 2008


Along the Schwabian Alp highway, we drove towards Nordilingen, through fertile fruit growing villages and luscious green forests. Ruined castles and rich monasteries added to the serene beauty of the countryside. It was surely a favourite holiday route signposted by little boards showing a silver thimble on a green background.
We stopped briefly at a small town called Gingen on the river Brenz. The people here spoke a dialect called Frisian. A traveller once wrote about a ginger bread church in a bakery window, and we drove around to locate it.
But what was of more interest to me was the story of a woman called Margarita Steiff, who became a rich entrepreneur through her brand of soft animal toys.
Margarita was born in Gingen in1847, and lived there till her death in 1909. In her early childhood she contracted Polio, and spent the rest of her life in a wheel chair. But she was not to be discouraged. Her legs might have failed her. But she had two perfectly normal hands and an agile brain.
“I must go to school,” she told her reluctant parents, and wore down their objections through her persistence.
After her basic education, she learnt tailoring. Now she wanted to become economically independent. She considered her disability not an impediment but a mere inconvenience to be surmounted.
“You are a woman, you are disabled and running a business is not a woman’s job,” said her father.
“My determination will help me leap over these obstacles. You wait and see Papa,” she told her father.
She began to make soft animal toys. Her first bear was christened Teddy Bear after President Theodore Roosevelt, who once went on a bear hunt and rescued a bear cub from being shot. Hence ‘Teddy Bear.”
The soft animals she made were cuddly and attractive, and the first batch was sold out at a Christmas Market in Heidenheim on Brenz. This gave her the idea of manufacturing them on a large scale. She founded her business in 1886, giving employment to many disabled people like herself, living in and around that area. Margarita worked till the end of her life.
Worldwide success came to her when an American ordered 3000 animals at the Frankfurt Fair. Someone even made a film about her life called “Against All Odds.”
Margarita’s toys bear her trade mark – a button in one ear. Hence they are called Knopf toys.
Though she died in 1909, the manufacture of her toys continues to be big business even today. They are sold in major toy shops in Germany and all over the world. Many toy museums exhibit some of her earliest toys. However, they have always been expensive. Even today, they sell at comparatively higher rates than other toys.
Next time you hold a teddy bear with a button in his ear in your hand, think of a feisty woman in a wheel chair, who looked ‘disability’ in the eye and turned it into an opportunity to excel.

1 comment:

Dick Kazan said...

This is a lovely piece, compelling and well-written. Thank you.