The Enchanted World of Margarete Steiff
Learn about the German businesswoman who devoted her entire career to enchanting generations of young and old.
Every holiday season since 1947, the mechanical storefront windows presented by Ogilvy’s, on Sainte-Catherine Street West, have been delighting spectators young and old with their magical scenes. The windows, specially designed by the German toy company Steiff, revolve around two themes – The Enchanted Village and The Mill in the Forest – that bring a multitude of hand-crafted animals to life in Bavarian settings.
The story of the Steiff company is first and foremost that of a remarkable woman who, in spite of a serious handicap and a struggle to achieve recognition, would found what was to become the world’s most famous producer of stuffed toys.
Margarete Steiff (1847-1909) was born in Giengen, Germany. Stricken at eighteen months old with poliomyelitis, she was left with paralyzed legs and only restricted use of her right arm. The determined young woman nevertheless trained as a seamstress and opened her own clothing business. In 1879, having seen a pattern for a small stuffed elephant in Modenwelt magazine, she made five of the animals in felt and wool, to give as Christmas presents. They were a huge success, especially with the children who received them, and this encouraged her to develop the market and gradually diversify her product.
By the time she brought out her first sales catalogue in 1892, she was producing an impressive variety of stuffed toys, the baby elephant having been joined by all sorts of other zoo and farm animals. In 1903 she launched her first teddy bear, which would quickly become the best-loved companion of children everywhere. The company founded by Margarete Steiff is still in operation today, and the wide range of stuffed animals it manufactures remains true to her original vision: “For children, only the best is good enough!”
In 1911, the firm began producing mechanical windows featuring moving animals, which stores could rent or purchase to order – an effective way of entertaining children while promoting their merchandise. John Aird Nesbitt, who owned Ogilvy’s department store from 1927 to 1985, bought two – The Enchanted Village and The Mill in the Forest.
These windows, now more than seventy years old, are the very embodiment of the Steiff company’s mission: to enchant generations of children. Similar to those of other great department stores across the world, such as Macy’s in New York and the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, the windows are among the last of their kind in North America. They were bequeathed to the McCord Museum in March 2018 by Holt Renfrew in order to preserve and ensure the continuity of this iconic Montreal tradition.