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Margarete Steiff: Made with Love

About the Episode

With a needle, a bit of stuffing and a lot of creativity, inventor Margarete Steiff stitched one of the most beloved toys into existence: the teddy bear. She turned her passion into a business forever changing the way children go to sleep.

This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by Jenise Morgan. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!


It’s time to rest again, Rebels. To snuggle up, close your eyes, and let go of all the thoughts and questions left over from your day. If you want, you can lift your shoulders all the way up to your ears, take a big, deep breath in

(breathe in)

and then let it go. Aaaaah.

Now if you can, squeeze your hands together, super tight super tight, take a big deep breath in 

(breathe in)

and release. Aaaaah.

And last but not least, if you’re able to, scrunch up your toes until they’re teeny tiny, take a big deep breath in 

(breathe in)

and then, let it all go. Aaaah.

Now, just feel your whole body melt into the bed, or wherever you’re resting right now. Let your mind wander into the night sky, where the stars are twinkling in the glow of the moon. 

Tonight, we’re going to hear a very special story about a rebel who changed the way we go to sleep!

Her name is Margarete Steiff, and she lived all the way back in the late 1800’s. Margarete was truly brave, incredibly kind, and she’s the reason I’m here today to tell you this story. 

You see, my name’s Teddy. And I’m the first teddy bear with moving arms and moving legs. Margarete is the one who stitched me together and gave me my smile. She sang me lullabies and made sure I was super snuggly. And she filled me with love from my fuzzy head to my furry toes.

So come on! Let me tell you how it all began.

First, we’re going to travel back through time and space, until we come to…the rolling green countryside of Bavaria, Germany. The year is 1864.  

The air is warm and calm, and there’s a gentle river winding its way through the fields, like a long blue ribbon. On the other side of the river, you can see the sun is just setting, like a scoop of peach ice cream perched in the cup that is the horizon. As you follow the sunset’s edge, you come to an old farmhouse with a steep red roof and rows of windows. And through one of these windows, you see a young woman sitting at her sewing machine. She’s surrounded by bright scraps of colorful fabrics and bits of fluffy stuffing. The hum of her machine is low and steady, as the needle hops up and down, up and down, laying small, even stitches in a pattern.

This is my friend, Margarete. Margarete loves using her imagination to make new clothes and crafts. She spends many hours each day, sitting here by the window with her sewing machine. Her dark hair is pulled back and woven into two braids, then wound together in a delicate bun. She wears a long, navy dress with ruffles around the neck and a full skirt falling over her legs. And if she needs to go anywhere, she has two big wheels attached to her chair.

You see, my friend Margarete cannot move her legs. Ever since she was a baby and had polio, her legs have been paralyzed. She also has trouble using her right arm. But none of this stops Margarete from going on lots of adventures!

In fact, when she was a little kid, she loved playing hide and seek with her friends, scooting along the cobblestone streets in her special chair with wheels. When it was time for school, her brother and sisters pulled her along in a hay cart, and Margarete bounced and giggled the whole way. She studied very hard and learned how to play a stringed instrument called the zither (zih-TAR), which is almost like a guitar and a harp rolled into one. It was painful at first, but Margarete stuck with it, and playing the zither (zih-TAR) helped strengthen the muscles in both her hands. 

Margarete got so good at playing the zither, that she started giving lessons. And with the money she earned as a teacher, she bought herself a sewing machine.

Aaah, the sewing machine. Where all great crafts begin! Margarete went to sewing school and made long colorful skirts and coats to sell at the local market. Her clothes became very popular and she was planning to start her own tailoring business.

But then, one day in December of 1879, Margarete was looking through a magazine and found a sewing pattern for a stuffed toy elephant. 

“Oh, this is so cute! I wonder if I could make that,” Margarete said to herself.

Do you like elephants, Rebels? I sure do. They’re wise and kind, have amazing memories, and make such fun noises!

Margarete loved elephants too. So, she went right to work, gathering all the thread and bits of felt she’d need to make this toy come to life. As the elephant took shape, Margarete stuffed it with the softest lambswool she could find. Watching it get bigger and bigger. 

Picture Margarete there now…do you remember where she is? I sure do. She’s sitting at her sewing machine just through the window. The sun is setting and the hum of her machine is low and steady….

Once the elephant is full of fluffy stuffing, Margarete sews up its belly and attaches two glass eyes, a long tail, and even tiny little tusks. She wants this cuddly creature to be more than just another toy. She wants it to become someone’s friend for life.

When Margarete is finished with her last stitch, her brother Fritz takes the toy elephant to the local market and children come running over, oohing and ahhing over its soft fur, its long tail, its sweet eyes catching the light of the sun.

Margarete decides she has to make more! Soon, children are lining up at the market each week, begging their parents to get them a special elephant too. So, Margarete keeps sewing more and more of them. Pretty soon, she has to hire people to help her so she can keep up with all the orders! She starts her own stuffed toy company and teaches herself how to make lots of stuffed animals, like monkeys, donkeys, horses, camels, pigs, mice, and even giraffes. It’s like a wild stuffed animal zoo!

Except for one very important creature.

(whispers) That’s me!

Ahem. The year is 1902, and Margarete’s nephew Richard is strolling around the Nill’scher Zoo {nih-SHAW} in Stuttgart, Germany. He hears the birds squawking, the monkeys chattering, and the donkeys braying. Richard is an artist. He loves coming here by himself with a notebook and sketching all the animals he sees — especially the bears. He’s fascinated by their strong, sturdy shoulders, their long muzzles and fuzzy round ears.

After one particular trip to the zoo, Richard comes back to his Aunt Margarete very excited.

“Tante ! Tante! Look what I drew!”

“That’s a wonderful picture, Richard,” says Margarete.

“What do you think? Can you make a toy out of that?”

“Hmmmm,” says Margarete, a bit unsure.

After all, bears can sometimes look a little scary. And Margarete wants to make sure that all of her toys are warm, full of joy and feel like a special treat to hold and love. What if bears are too fierce-looking? What if they scare all the children away? 

Margarete leans in closer to Richard’s drawing. Suddenly, she feels like she can hear a little voice saying, 

C’mon. Just give it a try. 

Margarete knows that facing your fears is very important. After all, she was scared about not being able to walk for the rest of her life. But using her courage and creativity, she’s made an amazing life. So she says to Richard,

“Let’s give it a try, shall we?”

You see, when we face the things that scare us, we can find something new and magical that we never imagined before. That’s what Margarete does to make me. She takes that sketch of a big burly bear and she softens all the hard edges. She gives me kind eyes and a scruffy nose. She gives me moveable arms and legs so I can sit and stand and reach out for a snuggly hug. She gives me the most deliciously downy fur, made out of mohair, a wool so soft it feels like you are touching a cloud. She makes me feel like I can be anybody’s best friend.

By the time Margarete puts the finishing touches on me, I am by far the cutest and most snuggly toy in town. Her nephew Richard tucks me in his satchel and brings me to the big Leipzig {LIEp-zeg}Toy Fair to see if anyone wants to take me home. At first, most people walk right past me, not even stopping to take a look. They’re too busy looking at dolls or tea sets I guess. But then one businessman comes over and says 

“And what do we have here?”

He picks me up and looks right into my eyes. 

(takes in a breath) Oh friend, I must admit. It was such an exciting moment. I was so thrilled and scared and hopeful all at the same time. My little bear heart started pitter pattering faster than ever before. I even got goosebumps. Well, goose bear bumps. 

“Very charming,” the businessman says. As he holds me, he checks out my arms and legs and even pokes my ears. It tickles! 

And then he says he’d like to buy me and three thousand friends just like me. Can you imagine it? Three thousand teddy bears! Just like me! Weeeee!

And you know what?

That was just the beginning.

Thanks to Margarete, there are billions of teddy bears all over the world today. All shapes, sizes, colors and types of fur. Some of us are plush and new, sitting on store shelves waiting to be loved. And others of us are a little scraggly with matted fur and maybe a bit of stuffing poking out of our ears from years and years of hugs. 

Teddy bears are the ones who can hold you in the middle of the night if you wake up from a bad dream. 

We’re the ones you can stuff in your coat and take on all of your adventures. 

We’re the ones who will stick with you forever, no matter what.

And we’re all here because of my best friend, a lady named Margarete who was told she’d never walk again, but didn’t let that stop her creativity from running free and wild. So she sat by the window and used her heart and her imagination to create something very special.

So Rebels, if you have a teddy bear or a stuffed animal you love, go ahead and give it a good squeeze right now. And if you don’t have a lovie, no worries. Just make sure to give that hug to yourself. Squeeze real real tight, take a deep breath in

(take in a breath)

And let it all go…

Drifting through time and space, through rolling green hills, peach ice cream sunsets, and wherever your dreams take you…

Remember, we can all be like Margarete. Full of bright ideas, daring and hope. And as you drift off to sleep I hope you get to go on lots of teddy bear adventures.