She was a businesswoman in a male-dominated world who created a handmade doll empire. 50 years since her death in 1968, children across the world still cherish distinctive — and sought-after — Käthe Kruse dolls.Since they hit the toy market in 1911, Käthe Kruse dolls have been prized globally for their Made in Germany quality. Tourists today spend significant sums on “real” Kruse soft-bodied dolls that are still handmade. But this worldwide success story had humble beginnings.
Early struggles and inspiration
Katharina Johanna Gertrud Simon was born September 17, 1883 in Dambrau near Breslau in East Prussia — today the Polish city of Wroclaw. But the illegitimate child of a seamstress grew up in poverty, and Käthe could not get excited about new dolls and cute toys for girls.
Nonetheless, her single mother provided her with a solid school education, enabling her to gradually join the ranks of the educated middle classes.
Käthe was intrigued by the theater from an early age, and at 17 was given a position at Berlin’s Lessing theater, where she quickly became known as a talented actress.
In Berlin she met numerous celebrities, but was particularly taken with Max Kruse, a famous sculptor 30 years her senior. They met in 1902 and she gave birth to her first child that same year, scandalous no doubt at the time. But Käthe did not care about conventions and the couple weren’t married till 1909. Between 1902 and 1921, Käthe Kruse gave birth to seven children.
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Maria, the eldest of the Kruse children, triggered a momentous turn in Käthe’s life. While living in the Swiss city of Ascona, Maria begged her father to bring her a doll from Berlin but, according to lore, he replied gruffly: “I’m not buying you any dolls. They are nasty. Make your own.”
Käthe Kruse took him by his word and made her first doll in 1905. She has merely filled a towel with sand, which was knotted to create arms and legs at the corners. A wrapped potato became the head.
She was soon inspired to professionally produce her handicraft. Working from home wasn’t an option due to the backlog of orders, so she founded a small factory in Berlin for the task in 1911. Her motto: “The hand follows the heart. Only the hand can create what goes through the hand back to the heart.”
Just one year later, the business was booming, and major orders also came in from overseas. Kruse moved her family to Bad Kösen in what is today the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. She rented an apartment and a larger workshop, and soon had more than 100 people working for her. The doll-making mother became a very successful entrepreneur, savvy in how to market her products.
The different doll models were given names, and the company also made doll clothes, doll furniture and paper doll cutouts. A catalog showed the dolls arranged in special settings.
In 1923 Kruse won the copyright and trademark rights for her doll models in a trial at the Leipzig Imperial Court after US toy company Bing copied her successful creations.
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Time of crisis
Trying to stay away from politics, Kruse reacted with pragmatism and seeming compromise to the economic and political crisis in the late 1920s.
After the start of World War II in Nazi-ruled Germany, she produced blonde “German” dolls with pigtails and soldier figures in grey uniforms signifying the SA or Hitler Youth. Nonetheless, the businesswoman was opposed to dismissing “half-Jewish” employees and also maintained correspondence with Jewish friends who had emigrated.
Fate wasn’t kind to her family: two of her sons died as soldiers in WWII, while her husband Max died in 1942. Meanwhile, doll-making materials were barely available and foreign orders had come to a standstill.
Under the new East German regime, the Kruse company was expropriated in 1950 and subsequently transformed into a state-owned company (VEB). In 1954, Kruse moved to the small town of Donauwörth in West Germany since two of her sons had founded a new workshop there in 1945 — one son, Max Kruse (1921-2015), is the author of the children’s book classic “Urmel aus dem Eis.”
New home, continued success
Käthe Kruse also moved the headquarters of her factory to Donauwörth. In 1956, the famous doll maker was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit, First Class. When she died on July 19, 1968 at the age of 84 in the Bavarian community of Murnau, she was indeed world famous. Her little creatures have moved into countless children’s rooms and hearts all over the globe.
Half a century later, the Käthe Kruse company is still going stong. Part of the Swiss Hape Holding since 2013, it generates annual sales of around four million euros ($4.65 million). Its 38 employees repair around 2,500 old dolls every year and produce around 78,000 new ones. Collectors pay thousands of dollars for some antique models.
And there is a huge variety of dolls, which is just as their creator would have wanted: boys, girls, princesses, angels and even donkeys. They don’t have eyes that open and close or flexible joints like many other dolls do. But they continue to have cloth bodies that feel warm and soft, and hair that can be combed. And they retain an irresistible facial expression that melts hearts across the world.