Ken Yenke explains the evolution and collectibility of plush animals.
Several years ago, I wrote a feature article for Teddy Bear Review about the Hagenbeck Circus—there can be no real study about animals becoming plush toys without including a look at Karl Hagenbeck’s Animal Circus. It was in the late 1800s that Hagenbeck and his son pioneered kind animal training that eliminated any of the practiced cruelty to animals. Gone were the whips and sticks. They invented the “react, then reward” method that ultimately allowed people around the world to enjoy watching the intelligence of lions, tigers and bears rather than seeing frightened ferocious animals on tense display. As the throngs of people watched well-trained wild and domestic animals, it made them even more desirable. Even the tigers and lions seemed playful.
It is well documented that Richard Steiff, nephew of Margarete, while attending art school in the late 1800s, became friends with one of the animal trainers of the Hagenbeck Animal Circus. Richard became enamored with the talented animals, especially one of the bears who grinned and waved to the crowd. The drawings Richard made of these friendly Hagenbeck animals would later become inspirations for some of the Steiff plush toys.
As the Industrial Revolution arrived, many families moved from farms and rural properties to the manufacturing areas in the large cities. It would become nearly impossible to see or have any real animals around. Wild, forest and farm animals became somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Even domestic animals were generally owned only by the very well-to-do.
It is important at this time to remember back to the turn of the last century. The 1900s began by being coined by toymakers as “The Century of the Child.” Plush animals literally took the world by storm. Family was paramount, and children of the socially elite were proudly displayed in photographs with their early plush toys. Crown Prince Frederick’s children in Germany, Teddy Roosevelt’s in America and King Edward’s in England were all early recipients of these new plush toys. As manufacturing progressed, it quickly spread throughout and from Germany, England and the United States.
From the late 1700s, German papier-mâché animals were made, but they were more realistic and sometimes fierce looking. In the late 1800s, but especially after 1900, worsted wool (then velvet and mohair) animals appeared. They were artistically created to emulate the kinder and gentler animals that became more desirable and non-threatening. It was not long before music box versions were introduced. These would join, and then replace, the mechanical clockwork windup toys as the most favored novelties.
The Roaring Twenties ushered in the brightest colors and the first humanized animals. The teddy bear truly began the “Century of the Child,” but it was joined quickly by nearly every living type of mammal by the 1920s. In the later ’20s, dogs and cats actually outsold the perennial teddy bear for a time, according to issues of Playthings magazine from that period.
Prices of animals, as you may guess, closely parallel those of teddy bears, but on a significantly lower scale. Just as you would imagine, if an animal has that special fourth dimension (the ability to communicate) it will bring a much higher market price. Universal appeal, rarity and quality are bedrocks in the considerations for evaluating the market value of plush toys. With artistically designed animals of all makes, there are no two exactly alike. As collectors, we also know some have that look—and some don’t! That look is what advanced collectors term as the fourth dimension.
One thing that has remained relatively constant is the popularity by habitat. In other words, the ranking in dollar value and popularity has generally been categorized like this: after teddy bears, then 1) domestic animals, 2) farm animals, 3) forest animals, 4) wild animals, and 5) fish and exotics. Understand there are exceptions to the above, and a rare exotic can bring a higher price than a common domestic animal.
Whatever you enjoy, there is a vast variety of both old and new artistically created animals to collect. So pick a favorite and begin to enhance your collection with some new and different pieces. My wife, Brenda, and I originally began with teddy bears, but we quickly added any great-looking animal that talked to us. The ones that speak best often don’t make a sound!