Spielwarenmesse: Women entrepreneurs in the toy industry

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  Movers & shakers

Movers & shakers

Women entrepreneurs in the toy industry

from Maria Costa

There is a trend towards the recognition of amazing women and their contribution to all sorts of fields, from art, sports, science, and more. In many cases, they were not even included in history books, but that is changing. In our industry, as in many others, we need to raise awareness about the prodigious women who influenced our history. This article is about them.

Women who shaped the industry

The toy industry is what it is today thanks to a great number of entrepreneurs and people from a big variety of countries and backgrounds. Among them there were incredible women that should not be forgotten. These are women who contributed some of the most successful toy evergreens that have ever been invented.

In 1877 Margarete Steiff was a seamstress who was starting her own clothing business. Two years later, this visionary converted a pin cushion with the shape of an elephant from a pattern she found in a fashion magazine into a toy. She was actually partially paralyzed but that never stopped her and in 1880, her stuffed animal’s toy company was founded. The first stuffed bear ever was invented in Margarete’s company by her nephew Richard Steiff. At the same time toymakers Morris Michtom in the U.S. presented a similar concept, naming their toy Teddy bear after their president Theodore Roosevelt.

At the beginning of last century, another toy was reinvented by a woman. At that moment, dolls were made of porcelain, but Käthe Kruse’s daughters wanted baby dolls they could cuddle, something different from the cold stiffed dolls they could find in stores. So Käthe started making soft dolls for them. In 1910, she displayed some of her creations in a department store in Berlin and they became instantly popular, in part due to the naturalness of its looks. This hard working woman was the mother of 7 children and actually the dolls were handmade modeling her own kids. After many successes, awards and recognitions, Käthe Kruse dolls are still in production and continue to be a symbol and an inspiration for all of us.

Both women, Margarete Steiff and Käthe Kruse’s have been worldly recognized and are even featured in movies.

Some years after, in 1959, Ruth Handler, an American businesswoman, launched to the market another revolutionary doll, one with adult proportions. A doll that was very unique compared to the baby dolls children used to get back then. Even if the doll itself was an imitation of a German figure based on an adult comic, Ruth Handler was a real innovator as she envisioned it as appropriate for a different target (while not many people saw it that way at all), and as we all know, she changed for ever the way kids used to play with dolls, and the way companies used to think dolls should be as well. With Barbie, she started the new category of fashion dolls with great success.

Beyond dolls and stuffed animals, women also contributed to other categories of toys such as board games. In fact, the first version of one of the most important games in our history was invented by a woman. In 1904, Elizabeth Magie got the patent for a game called The Landlord's Game, nowadays know by Monopoly. With the game she wanted to help the mainstream understand the dangers of land monopolism and how the use of land value tax could help. Sadly, she didn’t get any real recognition during her lifetime, and only after a scholar found her patent in 1973, the world was able to know her real role in the invention of the game.

Women are changing the industry now

The good news is that, nowadays women can find more visibility and encouragement thanks to a growing number of organizations that empower and support their growth in several industries. Specifically in our sector, Women in Toys (WIT) is facilitating a global networking community for professional women in our field, and is also helping promote their visibility through their annual awards since 2005. The presentation of the awards is a great event for the recognition of the contribution of women that are shaping and influencing our industry, entrepreneurs who achieved the unimaginable. And there are many more brave pioneer women who should definitely be remembered and honored. 

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