Local teddy bear museum highlights success of toymaking brand.
“Teddy bears are a symbol of comfort—pure comfort and love,” says Steve Ferri, owner and curator of The Den of Marbletown Teddy Bear Museum in Stone Ridge.”I think everyone recognizes this. Even when the older generations step inside these doors, I can see the youth come back into their eyes.”
Serving as the ultimate homage to the company that first started the world’s love for teddy bears, The Den of Marbletown is an 1860s farmhouse-turned-museum dedicated to the German toymaking brand Steiff. The company produced the first teddies known to man in 1903, thanks to innovative seamstress Margarete Steiff. Ferri lives on-site and works frequently on new projects and additions to the growing Ulster County attraction.
The Den has hundreds of pieces on display, ranging anywhere from a life-sized brown bear that stands over 5 feet tall to bears smaller than a child’s hand tucked into dollhouse scenes. Some bears are in costume, some are brightly colored, and some even growl when picked up, yet among them all is the common Steiff trademark of exceptional craftsmanship.
Each animal is manufactured by hand even today in Steiff’s 103-year-old factory in Giengen, Germany, despite advanced technology that would allow for faster production. And because each bear is crafted by hand, no two are ever the same.
“If you line up 10 different Steiff bears and take a look at them, you’ll see 10 different faces looking back at you,” says Ferri. “They all have expressions unique to themselves.”
The plush toys are made of high quality fabrics such as mohair, alpaca, and cotton velvet, and often withstand generations of ownership. Ferri says many Steiff animals become family heirlooms due to their durability. That was the case for him, and now some toys belonging to his mother-in-law, who first piqued his interested in Steiff, are now housed at The Den.
The museum’s most rare inhabitant is the 1904 Rod Bear, one of the earliest versions of the Steiff bear. Metal rods fixed through the hips and torso allow its limbs to be moved and posed in various positions. Rightfully considered the “holy grail” attraction at The Den, the vintage piece is in prime condition at 112 years old.
Also housed at The Den is a replica of the Mourning Bear, a black bear with amber red eyes made to honor those that perished in the sinking of the Titanic in April of 1912. At this somber time in history, Ferri said the demand for the bears was so high that Steiff needed to repurpose black bears from other collections to keep up. The demand still remains today—Ferri has seen biddings for a true version of the bear reach $35,000 in auction.
“Coming from a small, land-locked town in Germany, Steiff made a point to become a part of the rest of the world by paying tribute to global events,” Ferri said. “Although they were a German brand, they kept up with what was happening in the world around them.”
Over the years, Steiff has crafted more than 16,000 different designs for stuffed animals since its inception in 1880. Perhaps the brand’s greatest feat, however, was its very beginning.
A talented seamstress, Margarete Steiff founded a clothing company of her own in 1877, and a toymaking company three years later after seeing the success of small plush elephants she had been selling on the side. But she was no ordinary seamstress—Margarete honed her sewing skills using a sewing machine flipped backwards because she didn’t have use of her right hand due to a childhood illness. She also had to use a wheelchair.
“Being a woman with a disability in the era that she lived in, and being able to create an international company that still exists today is just amazing,” Ferri said. “And accounts show that Margarete made it a priority to always treat her workers with respect, and even helped provide jobs for other people with disabilities. Her work was a true labor of love.”
The Den of Marbletown is located at 1 Basten Lane in Kingston, New York. For more information, call 845-687-6441. The Den is a member of the Hudson Valley Current, a local currency system for the mid-Hudson Valley.