A Steiff Bear

ZA UCT BC1556_AK_AK5_AK5.23

Height: 26cm
Chest: 20cm
Shoulder: 9cm
Hip: 18cm
Leg: 12cm
Arm: 15cm
Neck: 6cm
This bear is part of a collection that is owned by the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation. Any restrictions, permissions and representations are at the discretion of the SAHGF, in collaboration with the original donor, Neville Whitney.

Object Domicile

A teddy bear that once belonged to a decorated race car driver, World War One pilot, father, husband and flight instructor, has now found its place in a box on the top floor of the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town.

Object Origin

Margarete Steiff GmbH Factory, Giengen/Brenz Germany 1902

Margarete Steiff established her company in Giengen, Germany, and the first stuffed toys she made were elephants, expanding later into making other animals. With the help of her nephew Richard, the first rendition of the “teddy bear” was made in 1902. Looking for fur to make the bear, Richard discovered mohair plush to be the most appropriate material, due to its cuddly and dyeable properties. This Steiff bear was born in that factory, and belonged to Willy Rosenstein who was born and raised in Stuttgart, Germany. The bear accompanied Rosenstein during his flights as a war pilot in World War I, surviving and existing in airspace across France, Belgium and Germany from 1915- 1918. The bear also survived through World War II, emigrating through Hamburg and Durban to reach Johannesburg in 1936. Outliving its owner Willy Rosenstein who passed in 1949, the Steiff bear was adopted by the Whitney family who were neighbours to the Rosenstein’s. In 2016, the bear was donated to the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, featuring in an exhibition called “Seeking Refuge.” The bear now resides in the University of Cape Town's Special Collections, alongside Rosenstein’s other donated possessions.

The ancestor of all teddy bears still exists! This Steiff bear that was created before the knopf-im-ohr (button-in-ear) trademark was introduced, is the forefather of all teddy bears, making it one of the oldest existing Steiff bears in the world. In pristine shape with all eyes and limbs intact, it belonged to a decorated racer and WWI war pilot and is over 110 years old.

The Steiff Bear: Separation, Value and The Archive

A teddy bear that once belonged to a decorated race car driver, World War One pilot, father, husband and flight instructor, now resides in a box on the top floor of the Special Collections Library at the University of Cape Town. Alongside other belongings in the collection, such as photographs, letters, newspaper articles and a wide range of badges and coins, this Steiff bear is one that stands out. To understand the make-up and origins of this bear, we will first look at the Steiff company and its history. We will then use the bear as a case study to assess separation, the afterlife and its changing value under different circumstances, contexts and owners. How has the bear been valued according to each space it occupied? Furthermore, can we consider the object’s existence as an afterlife of its owner when in an archive?

The Steiff brand was a company established in 1890, two years prior to the birth of Willy Rosenstein to whom this bear belongs. Margarete Steiff established the company in Giengen, Germany and the first stuffed toys she made were elephants, expanding later into making other animals. With the help of her nephew Richard, the first rendition of the “teddy bear” was made in 1902 (Steiff Teddy Bears UK, n.d.). The “Bear 55 PB” model was “the world’s first toy bear with jointed arms and legs. While looking for a suitable material for the fur, Richard found the cuddly and dyeable mohair plush, manufactured by the Schulte pile-fabric weaving mill in Duisburg” (Steiff Teddy Bears UK, n.d.). Mohair is the product of sheared Angora goat fur which is “naturally white, curly and shiny and when made into a pile fabric, has remarkable strength” (Steiff Teddy Bears UK, n.d.). This would make the parent material of this bear an Angora goat.

The “button in ear” trademark for which Steiff is known for, was introduced by Margarete’s other nephew Franz in 1904 (Steiff Teddy Bears UK, n.d.). This is important in relation to the two Steiff bears that belonged to Willy Rosenstein. One is a small, twelve centimetre tall blonde bear which has a button sewed onto its ear- suggesting that it was bought and introduced into Willy’s life in his hometown Stuttgart after 1904. Considering that Mr. Rosenstein was born in 1892 in Stuttgart, we can hypothesise that the bear was in his life after he reached 12 years of age. On the other hand, the bear in question is larger and dark brown in colour and has no button sewn in its ear, revealing that the bear would have been produced before the button in ear trademark was introduced. This is would make it part of a rare collection of one of the first teddy bears ever produced by Steiff 120 years ago: the aforementioned Bear 55 PB. This forefather of a bear is what I have chosen to focus on.

Upon leaving the factory, the bear became the possession of Willy Rosenstein who has been written and researched about as he is a recognised figure in the German air force and auto sports. Furthermore, in the Leo Baeck Institute Archives in New York, there is archival material of Rosenstein’s autobiographical note which he wrote in 1940 during his time at the Ganspan Internment Camp, Kimberley. Therefore, one would be able to write something about the man’s life in detail and it would essentially be the same as this Steiff bear’s. From reading the autobiographical note, it is apparent that this bear has moved through time experiencing several events of separation changing not only its destiny but its value too.

The first stage of separation the bear faced was in 1902 when it left from the Steiff Filz-Spielwaren-Fabrik (or Felt Toy Manufacturing Facility) and became a childhood toy of its owner Willy Rosenstein, living in Stuttgart for the first 20 years of its life. While Willy worked as a flight instructor, the war broke out and he volunteered for duty as a pilot (Rosenstein, 1940), taking the bear with him. This event separated him from a safe environment and into the war in 1915 (Rosenstein, 1940). The bear hung in the cockpit along with a mini silver propeller till and this is the first indication that the object had some sort of value in providing protection or luck to its owner. As Downes writes in World War One was no picnic for teddy bears, this was a common practice during the war, “St Christopher medallions, four leaf clovers, rabbit’s feet… many people wouldn’t dream of setting out on a journey or an important possibly dangerous mission without the protection of their favourite charm. Of special appeal to the inner child in us has been the teddy bear” (Downes, 2014). Considering that the war broke out just a couple of years after Steiff launched its range of bears which took the world by storm, teddy bears became the “perfect companion for many soldiers during World War One. Averaging only six inches tall they didn’t exactly meet army height requirements and their turn-out was often not of the smartest on parade. But they were loyal, accompanied their men everywhere during the war and sometimes gave rise to the most incredible stories of bravery and true grit” (Downes, 2014). Both the bear and Willy successfully fought and survived through the First World War, proving its lucky and protective charm to be true.

Over the following years in the 1930s, Willy and his wife began to feel and fear the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany. Noticing the growing hostility and policies against Jews, the Rosenstein family decided to migrate to South Africa (Rosenstein, 1940). The bear thus faces yet another separation, leaving its home in Germany and emigrating to South Africa with Willy in 1936. For it to be considered an item to be included while packing their lives away, indicates that the bear’s value and purpose has become particularly significant to Willy. The value here would be something beyond the monetary or material, and instead strongly suggests that it might have held a sentimental value of attachment, nostalgia and even tenderness. A man who saw death and war, held on to a soft toy that witnessed what he did from childhood through to his adult life. The bear therefore becomes an extension of Willy’s memory and life, further granting it agency to act as the “afterlife” of Willy after his death.

In 1949, when Willy passed away in an air crash at his flight school in Rustenburg, the bear consequently outlived him and eventually the rest of the Rosenstein family who left no descendants. This pivotal event of separation from its owner raises concern over the bear’s destiny – how will it now be received or treated after this loss? Having left no other family members, the bear is adopted by the Whitney family who were neighbours to the Rosenstein’s (Access to Memory, n.d), separating the bear not only from Willy, but his home too. Neville Whitney’s mother was a neighbour to the Rosenstein family, and the belongings from the house were passed on and kept by the Whitney’s even after her death. While a possession can serve a purpose to the person while there are alive, what meaning do we make of the object once the person is deceased?

The fact that this specific bear, among other more important items such as photographs, documents and badges, has been included in being taken care of across homes, spaces and generations, links to Carol Lipman’s article about inherited objects in a domestic space. Speaking about ritual objects found when moving into new homes, she states that “if participants believe the intention is to protect, these objects are granted the most respect – handled with great sensitivity, ensuring that the tradition – whoever started it and for what purpose – continues in some form” (Lipman, 2008: 93). Though the bear was part of a larger collection of possessions, the Steiff bear would have been understood to be something of importance to its now deceased owner, consequently avoiding this seemingly banal object from being discarded.

However, after years of living with the Whitney family, the bear reached its most recent and disruptive separation in 2016. Donated to the South African Holocaust and Genocide foundation (Access to Memory, n.d), the bear suddenly arrives into a completely foreign land and context: the archive. This environment thus shifts the bear’s value from sentimental to archival, and how does the archive now interpret this? In Achille Mbembe’s paper The Power of the Archive and its Limits, he suggests that death is essential in order “to give rise to a time characterised by not belonging to a private individual, precisely because this time, from that moment on, founds or institutes something.” He goes on to say that:

“The power of the archive as an ‘instituting imaginary’ largely originates in this trade with death. There are three dimensions to this trade. The first involves the struggle against the fragments of life being dispersed. In fact, death is one of the most radical attempts to destroy life and to abolish all debt in relation to it. The act of dying, inasmuch as it entails the dislocation of the physical body, never attacks totally, nor equally successfully, all the properties of the deceased (in either the figurative or the literal sense). There will always remain traces of the deceased, elements that testify that a life did exist, that deeds were enacted, and struggles engaged in or evaded. Archives are born from a desire to reassemble these traces rather than destroy them. The function of the archive is to thwart the dispersion of these traces and the possibility, always there, that left to themselves, they might eventually acquire a life of their own.” (Mbembe in Hamilton, et al, 2002:22)

Though this passage refers to an archive as a document, it can be applied to objects of ephemera such as this bear. The material culture of this object is almost universal and relatable to most people who had childhood toys, good luck charms or talisman. However, supposing that this Steiff bear is placed in a museum or exhibition context, its value would approached in monetary terms and held as a collectable toy that avid collectors around the world could purchase. Burton states in his article on the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, that “although we have seen that the history of toys is in many ways a museum-led subject, there is no doubt that the publications on toy history that we see on booksellers’ shelves nowadays are predominantly aimed at the collectors’ market.” (Burton, 1997:12) The personality, sentimentality and non-monetary value of this bear would therefore not conventionally be considered or communicated in a collector’s context. The object in such a content is therefore removed of all its sentimental past and attachment to its owner, and instead would become a collectable amongst many other similar items.

Alternatively, how does the archive put value on objects that would otherwise be considered worthless? The sensitivity, materiality and tenderness that the bear would have meant to its original owner and in its past contexts, is decontextualised and omitted by its placement in the archive. Its value and purpose becomes limited to historical and archival purposes which does not communicate emotion as well as it exercises intellectualising the object. The sentimental value that this object had to Willy is then lost in translation and displacement, diluted by characteristics, classifications and descriptions given to it by its new home. Mbembe also argues that the archive disrupts the journey of an object (Mbembe in Hamilton, et al,  2002:22). The item no longer belongs to an individual or family, but becomes content that is stored in a secure room, being accessible to people that are unrelated to it. In this space, the bear is isolated and handled in an almost clinical manner. In an unfamiliar and cold space, the bear will never again feel human touch and is handled and prodded by glove-wearing archivists who are interested in history or immigration for example. Had the bear not been donated, it perhaps might have remained in the Whitney family, moving across families and generations, bearing stories of its own, continuing its ritualistic duties. Instead, the archive becomes an impersonal place where memories go to die. Discontinuing its movement and original purpose, the archive expands the bear’s meaning and value into something that has historical value rather than emotional or personal.

For over 100 years, this Steiff bear has moved through wars, spaces and homes, and now sits in a box among other boxes that have also found their fate to be stunted by the archive. By its placement in the such a space, the bear has been put to rest, allowing it’s story to be explored here at a surface level. Tracking the journey of this bear, it becomes apparent that due to its several stages of separation, it has been placed in changing contexts, consequently changing its meaning and value in these different spaces. We see how the meaning of this bear moves from being a childhood toy to a good luck charm that bears protective values during the war. As Willy holds on to the bear even when emigrating to Germany, the bear begins to show its attachment to Willy as a repository of memories, making it an object of sentimental value to its owner. This notion is further respected as Willy passes away and the bear is taken care of by the Whitney’s. The bear becomes a ritualistic inherited object that may not necessarily be felt or understood by its new family, but is nonetheless preserved, extending the bear’s life and rendering it to stand as an afterlife of Willy. Finally, as the bear is donated to the Holocaust centre, all its past values and meanings shift tremendously and suddenly. Sitting in the Special Collections library at the University of Cape Town, it is true that this object’s identity, origins and history can be investigated in detail for the first time. However, to what extent does the archive have the power to communicate and preserve the emotionality, sentimentality and materiality of this object now that is has been decontexulised? The Special Collections library therefore becomes a space to thwart the life of inanimate personal belongings, making it a mortuary of memories that are not our own.


I would like to thank Karen Ijumba, Michal Singer, Dmitri Abrahams for assisting me in conceptualising this project, as well as providing valuable information and content for the research. Contribute information to this page