Margarete Steiff was born in a small town in Germany in 1847 to a working class family. At just 18 months old, she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs, confining her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Steiff carried on though, remaining outgoing and cheerful through her childhood. Eventually she was able to take needlework classes and became trained in several forms of tailoring including dressmaking, knitting, crocheting, and embroidery. With the money she saved up from giving zither lessons, she purchased a sewing machine- the first in her village! Because her right arm was weakened by polio, she adapted her sewing machine to work left-handed by turning it around and sewing backwards. How’s that for innovative?

Just for fun, Steiff began sewing felt toy elephants as gifts for children and pincushions for her friends. Her brother Fritz realized that she had a created a marketable product and encouraged her to make more. He took them to toy markets in neighboring cities and they were a hit. The profits from the toy elephants eventually spurred the opening of the Steiff “Felt Toy Factory” in 1893. A testament to Steiff’s perseverance, the company became the largest manufacturer of stuffed toys in Germany, and is still around today.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons