Thursday, September 18, 2014
Old Stuff I Love #3: Steiff Lobster
See the lobster? With the bright orange, red and golden yellow claws? Little beady black eyes? Half cute, half realistic, you don't know whether to hug him or draw some butter.
He's 52 years old. Ancient for a toy, particularly one that looks so good. The only wear he has shown is, he used to have long red stringy whiskers, like a real lobster. But those got chewed off over the years.
All told, in surprising condition.
Well, maybe not so surprising. He's a Steiff.
If you know something about toys, you know that Steiffs are German mohair animals—well, they make regular soft stuffed animals too, but classic Steiff's are hard, dense toys like this lobster -- he feels packed with sawdust. The company was founded in 1880, and still makes old-fashioned toys. The bear's arms and legs and neck move. That's really their claim to fame, along with the brass button in their ears displaying a serial number, and the fact that the company invented the Teddy Bear in 1902 (with a crucial assist from the United States, where Theodore Roosevelt, in the same year, refused to shoot a black bear that had been tethered to a tree by his over-zealous hosts. The incident became a Washington Post cartoon, a Brooklyn toymaker got the ball rolling and then Steiff invaded these shores in 1906, setting off a veritable Teddy Bear mania. The song, "Teddy Bear's Picnic," for instance, dates to 1907).
None of which has anything to do with why I love them. My father was a nuclear scientist and, as such, traveled the world, giving papers and attending conferences. In 1962, he travelled to Germany, where he noticed these colorful, realistic, lovely toy animals. He had two kids at home: me, then 2, and my sister, 5. The dollar was strong then, and he bought back Steiff toys—a turtle and an elephant, this lobster and giraffe ... and a lion, a camel, various birds, including a penguin, and ... a squirrel, a big ladybug, a goat—so many that he bought a small case to carry them home.
The part of the story that I cherish is when he gets home, after his long overseas trip, happily opens the case, with its stuffed treasure, and tells my sister to take what she wants, and her toddling brother can have the rest. My sister surveys the bestiary and bursts into tears: "Didn't they have any dollies?" she wails. She wanted baby dolls, not a lobster, which went to me. He's been a boon companion, lo these many years.
Maybe that story isn't much, as far as family traditions go. But it was what I had, so I hung my hat on it. When my younger brother Sam's daughter Rina was born, I showed up at the hospital, Steiff in hand. Ditto for his son Ryan, and Sam reciprocated for my kids.
The day my oldest boy, Ross was born, when Edie beeped me to tell me to get home now and whisk her to the hospital, I was in FAO Schwarz on Michigan Avenue, looking at a little Steiff German Shepherd that ended up in his crib. The cat was a gift for Kent from his Uncle Sam.
And the Teddy Bear ... was a gift from me to Kent. Ross later demanding the exact same bear, and when FAO Schwarz let me down, I plugged the serial number into this new Internet machine—this was about 1998—and found a toy store in Coon Rapids, Minnesota that sold it to me, via mail, for $30 less than what I had spent on Kent's. A miracle.
What I remember most about Kent's bear was when I bought him, 17 years ago, my frugal wife looked in the shopping bag and was aghast, horrified at the cost—$160—and gave me one of those are-you-mad!? keel-haulings that wives are so good at. "A hundred and sixty dollars?! For a Teddy Bear?!?! Are you out of your MIND? Spending THAT on some TOY? Why do you always do this to me...?"
As fate would have it, the perfect retort came to me, and I smoothly sidestepped the crisis with a matador's grace.
"When you see it in your grandchild's crib," I parried. "It'll seem like a bargain."
She, like my sister, started to cry. Game, set, match.
The bears, to be honest, were never favorite toys of either boy; I think they somehow knew they were special and treated them gingerly. The bears spent a lot of time on shelves, observing. Or maybe they just weren't cuddly, they were hard, and got shunted to the side. I let the lobster be part of their scrum—I dug him out of the toy chest for his portrait—not seeing the point of holding him back, particularly since nothing could hurt him short of a machete. He's still good to go for the next generation. The bears too. That doesn't come for a while, but if Steiff is here, and if I'm here, and have a few dollars to scrape together, Steinbergs unborn be outfitted with beautiful mohair toys, good for the rough and tumble long haul of a life well-lived.