Cuddly toys, teddy bears and more…
Soft toys are representations of animals, cartoon characters, people, legendary creatures and even anthropomorphised inanimate objects. The toy is sewn from textiles, though, for some dolls, the head and hands may be soft or hard plastic. The toy is stuffed with synthetic fibers, cotton, plastic pellets, dried beans, straw or some other substance of similar qualities. Soft toys are also called plush or cuddly toys.
Homemade soft toys have been around for centuries, but the German company Steiff was the first commercial enterprise to produce soft toys for sale, starting around 1880. Omega was a line of stuffed plush toys produced in Britain by the British United Toy Manufacturing Company in the 1890s. Examples of Steiff and Omega toys from that era are considered collector items now.
Chad Valley and Merrythought were two British companies that produced many soft toys in the 1920 and 1930s out of new textiles like artificial silk and rayon plush. Merrythought is still active and will be producing the official teddy bear for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Chad Valley plush toys are available through Argos stores. After WWII, soft toys were made with polyester and man-made fabrics like nylon. Safe plastic eyes that locked in place replaced glass eyes and soft toys became machine washable.
Fads have come and gone with soft toys over the decades. Gonks, furry and egg-shaped, appeared in Britain as far back as 1915 and have cycled in popularity over the years, with one surge in the 1960s that spawned the very odd 1965 movie “Gonks Go Beat” and another surge in popularity during the early 1980s where Gonks became good-luck tokens and favoured carnival prizes. Cabbage Patch Kids came across the Atlantic from the USA in the 1980s and Beanie Babies began in 1993. Each brand had dolls individualised by name and appearance. Webkinz stuffed animals were introduced in 2005 with codes for online access to websites and virtual versions for play online. This online trend has continued with soft toys from Disney’s Club Penguin and Build-A-Bearville.
One non-online soft toy that has become popular is the Pillow Pet, a folding stuffed toy that closes to become a pillow and opens to become a soft animal toy. Amigurumi, imported from Japan in 2003, are small stuffed animal toys knitted or crocheted with over-sized heads and undersize arms and legs — they’re collected and sold on craft websites like Etsy. Stuffed plush toys have recently been introduced that accurately represent the microbes that can invade the human body — they can be considered either educational or ironic, depending on your frame of mind.
Soft toys have never gone out of fashion, with each decade adding its own flavour to the mix. Electronic interactivity is the latest trend, starting back in 2006 with the Sesame Street brand of soft toys, the most favourite of which is still Talking Elmo. Furbies appeared in 1998 and were reintroduced in 2005 as little stuffed electronic creatures that can learn to speak. The latest electronic soft toy to become popular are the tiny robotic Zhu Zhu Pets, also known as the Go Go Hamsters. Geometry is another trend, with plush cubes, pyramids and spheres that can be used for soft construction projects.
Today, soft activity dolls teach young children everything from the parts of the body to colours, numbers and manners. Such soft toys are completely safe for young children and stimulate the child both visually and by sound. Many plush toys now attach to strollers and car seats so that a child never loses track of where their cuddly buddy is.