How Sophie the Giraffe Became One of the Most Popular Toys Ever
When my daughter was barely a whisper of a pregnancy, my mother-in-law started sending presents to feather her nest. That Christmas, I unwrapped a Sophie la Girafe — a friendly-looking creamy giraffe with a sweet blush on her cheeks.
Although that’s the first time I remember seeing Sophie (we were soon on a first-name basis), suddenly I saw her everywhere — in strollers, held by little hands, packaged in every store I walked into, and on every baby registry I perused. I could see the appeal. Unlike so many garish toys, especially those meant for teething, Sophie is an aesthetic triumph.
When my daughter was born, she seemed to agree — Sophie became a companion on many adventures, including being dropped in a department store (I frantically retraced my steps while listening to someone announce the loss on a loudspeaker). Even now, at 3 1/2, my daughter will still take Sophie out and talk to her, carrying her around and holding her close.
The History of Sophie the Giraffe
When I discovered that Sophie’s story began in 1961 in the heart of Paris, my curiosity was piqued. Unlike so many toys with obscure origins, Sophie has an easily traceable birthday. A man known to us now only as Mr. Rambeau created her on May 25, 1961. It was the feast day of St. Madeleine-Sophie Barat, so he named her Sophie.
Mr. Rambeau specialized in working with natural latex from Hevea trees. Rambeau worked for Vulli, a company which was already successful in the latex toy business. But most animal toys at that time were based on farm animals and household pets. A giraffe was something more exotic — something new and novel. She was a hit right away.
It’s hard to believe that Sophie is over 60 years old. She fits so seamlessly into a modern nursery. But when I take another look, I can see a hint of the midcentury modern about her — a little bit stylized, a little bit romantic. Either way, she’s timeless.
How Sophie the Giraffe Became So Popular
To learn more about her, I spoke with Steve Montgomery, co-founder of Calisson — the company responsible for importing Sophie to the United States. He told me that before he had met her, his wife Hélène Dumoulin-Montgomery approached Vulli — the company who has been making Sophie for as long as she’s been in production — to ask if she could import her.
As an expatriate, she was familiar with Sophie’s popularity in France, although I certainly wasn’t. Did you know that you can buy Sophie in just about any French store? Each year, more Sophies are sold than there are babies born in France. If you visit the Grévin museum in Paris, you can see a giant wax figure of Sophie among other celebrities — she took 500 hours to make. Sophie’s milestone birthdays (like the recent 55th and 60th) are gala events with celebrities and even royalty in attendance.
But Vulli wasn’t initially convinced that Sophie would catch on in the U.S. Hélène trusted her instincts, and in 2001, she began driving to California boutiques with Sophie in her car, hoping that the right people would see how special this little giraffe is. She started with only 100 Sophies, trusting that she would catch on.
One of the people to take an early chance on Sophie was Teri Weiss, who owns Elegant Child, in Beverly Hills — a boutique which famously caters to the stars. Weiss added Sophie to a few celebrity gift baskets, and orders started rolling in.
If you received a Sophie for a gift, or purchased one yourself, it’s likely that you didn’t read all the packaging (I certainly didn’t). As a result, I didn’t know that Sophie is made from 100% natural rubber in the same small French factory she started in or that she is painted with food-grade paint. Even if I’d read the fine print, I wouldn’t know that it takes 90 days to make a Sophie, since she needs to cure before she’s painted.
The natural rubber is exclusively sourced from Hevea trees in Malaysia. The trees are tapped in a similar way to a sugar maple and the rubber runs out — it’s a milky-white, viscous liquid. It enters France in drums, ready to turn into Sophies. The materials make this little giraffe completely biodegradable, and sustainable, as the trees aren’t harmed by rubber extraction.
I was surprised to learn that if I had read the box, I would know that Sophie isn’t supposed to be submerged in a tub or washed in the dishwasher, to avoid water getting inside her (the recommendation is to wash her while covering the hole with your finger, if needed, or spot clean). If you must have Sophie in the bath, they do make bath toys without holes. Regarding moisture, Montgomery assured me that baby spit is just fine.
Speaking of baby spit — apparently a Sophie is like a toothbrush — it’s best to have one per child and even switch them out every so often. Apparently there’s a fresh Sophie smell when the rubber is new that babies respond to. Even young children can respond to this smell and pick her out among their other toys. Since I neglected to smell my Sophie when I first got her, Montgomery sent me another one to sniff. As soon as I opened the box, I noticed the sweet, almost tropical smell, like vanilla or sugarcane. I almost want to chew on her myself.
More than just a pretty face, Sophie was designed to engage all five baby senses. Her contrasting dots and dark eyes are great for young babies who mostly see black and white. She’s fun to mouth and squeeze, with a rewarding squeak for little ears. There’s that heavenly smell, and she tastes good (yes, I tested this for science).
Over 20 years have passed since Hélène Dumoulin-Montgomery brought Sophie to the U.S. With hard work and lots of word of mouth, Sophie is at home in many young loving hands (and mouths). Her success in the U.S. prompted Vulli to send her on new adventures outside French borders — now she is available for sale in over 75 countries.
We may never see lavish birthday parties thrown in her honor or large wax sculptures created in her image here in the States, but she’s certainly a household name. You can still buy her in the boutiques that helped her take off, but also in large retailers like Nordstrom, Target, Bloomingdales, and Maisonette. While the classic Sophie will likely always be the favorite, you can find a range of products from teethers, books, and a plush, to fawn and camel friends.
I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Rampeau would think if he knew that his lovely giraffe is now beloved all over the world. Perhaps he had a feeling, like Hélène Dumoulin-Montgomery, and like the thousands of babies who reach for Sophie without hesitation — this giraffe is something special.
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