Adolf Gund: Ridgefield’s Geppetto

Adolf Gund

Adolf Gund

Jack Sanders / Contributed

To Ridgefielders in the 1930s, the old man with the German accent might have been Geppetto. Working in his shop in the barn behind his house, the white-haired retiree created marvelous stuffed animals. People came from far and wide to acquire his creations, made mostly because he loved to make them.

The man was Adolf Gund, who years earlier had founded the Gund Manufacturing Company, “creator of novelties” that included some of the earliest Teddy Bears.

Today Gund stuffed toys are sold around the world, both new and as antique collectibles, thanks to a man who loved making things for children but who had no children of his own.

Born in 1869 in Germany, Adolf Gund came to the U.S. in 1894. Four years later, he married Luise Bigler, also from Germany.

That year, Gund established a small toy company in Norwalk, but soon moved the operation to Manhattan as the Gund Manufacturing Company. There he continued to design toys, especially plush animals, sometimes with fairly elaborate moving parts. Some could walk, some could jump or even dance.

Gund was a strong believer in safety. One historian says he created early standards for toy safety.

In the early 1900s, along with Steiff, he was also among the first to produce Teddy Bears, capitalizing on a much publicized incident in which President Theodore Roosevelt was reported to have refused to kill a captured bear. Gund Teddy Bears are still being made today.

In the 1920s, Gund hired Russian immigrant Jacob Swedlin as a cutter and pattern-maker. He liked Swedlin and taught him the business operations. In 1925, Gund sold his company to Swedlin for $1,500 — about $22,000 today. Perhaps the low price reflected their friendship and also Gund’s requirement that the company always bear his name. After being led by three generations of Swedlins and now owned by Spin Master, a Canadian firm, the brand name is still Gund. And the motto for many years has been “Gotta Getta Gund.”

In 1927, Gund bought a farmhouse at North Salem Road and Wooster Street. (His half brother, Fritz Gund, a book-binder by trade, died here in 1915 and is buried in nearby Ridgefield Cemetery.) Though retired, he loved making one-of-a-kind toys for people who admired his work and didn’t mind driving hundreds of miles for a handmade Gund.

In 1936, Luise died at age 64. She is buried in Fairlawn Cemetery. Two weeks later, Gund sold his house and moved back to New York City where he died in 1945, aged 75.

Few Ridgefielders have ever known that their town was home to Adolf Gund, the man behind a thriving company that has brought smiles to the faces of hundreds of thousands of children for more than a century.

—Jack Sanders