Ruth Handler, inventor of the Barbie doll and co-founder of Mattel, died ten years ago today, but her most famous creation continues to evolve.
Born Ruth Mosko, she was the youngest of 10 children in a family of Polish immigrants living in Denver. At age 19, she moved to Hollywood and married Elliot Handler, her high school boyfriend and a plastics specialist. Along with partner Harold Mattson, they formed the Mattel toy company in 1945. Their first successful product was a toy ukulele called the Uka-a-doodle.
But the instrument’s sales would be dwarfed by what came next.
Though it seems hard to believe now given the ubiquity of Barbie and similar dolls, before the 1950s nearly all dolls marketed to girls were cherub-faced and designed with infant or toddler proportions. Ruth Handler, watching her own daughter play, noticed that she liked to pretend her dolls were actually adults.
Handler was also inspired on a trip to Europe in 1956, where she purchased a German produced Bild Lilli doll, Barbie’s indisputable progenitor. The doll was based on a popular German comic about a sassy, curvaceous and free-spirited secretary named Lilli. Meant as a sexy novelty gift (and, like Barbie, with additional outfits sold separately), Bild Lilli was well-crafted, expensive and definitely not marketed to children. It was designed basically as miniature 3D pin-up.
But Handler saw that such a doll could fulfill the needs of her children to project their fantasies of adult life onto playthings. Barbie – named after Handler’s daughter Barbara – premiered at a toy fair in March of 1959 and was an overnight sensation, selling 350,000 units in its first year alone. This success allowed Mattel to buy up the rights for Bild Lilli (and all associated patents) and shut down production of its German competitor.
The first Barbies, marketed as ‘Teen Age Fashion Models,’ came dressed in black and white striped swimsuits and were available as blondes or brunettes. The first Ken dolls – named for Handler’s son – would appear in 1961.
Almost since their inception, the dolls have served as 11½-inch lightning rods for controversy. Much of the criticism has centered on the dolls proportions, which many argue gives young girls an unrealistic image of the ideal female body. If inflated to human scale, the original dolls’ measurements would have been 39" 18" 33." In 1971, Mattel redesigned the mold to widen the waistline and decrease the bust, but the controversy persisted, with Barbie being blamed for body image issues like anorexia and plastic surgery addictions.
Feminists also derided the early Barbie for being accessorized as either a housewife or party girl (neither did they like the 1992 talking Barbie whose bon mots included “Math class is tough!”). This lead Mattel to issue astronaut Barbies, doctor Barbies, and even NASCAR-racing Barbies. Flight attendant Barbies are now complemented by commercial airline pilot Barbies.
Indeed, pilot Barbie could nearly fill an entire 727 with her merchandised Barbie companions, which would swell to include not only 7 siblings but more than 100 friends, families, neighbors and bandmates (from both “Barbie and The Rockers” and “Barbie and The Sensations”). Her pets would no doubt take up much of the cargo hold, as she owned 40 plus, including dogs, cats, horses, lions, zebras and pandas.
Mattel’s efforts at introducing Barbie’s diverse group of friends have not been universally well-received. Their first non-white doll, 1967’s “Colored Francie,” was criticized for lacking any African-American physical characteristics aside from dark skin. A 1997 cross-promotion with Nabisco resulted in the regrettable black version of the now highly collectible “Oreo Barbie” – leading one to wonder how teams of marketers at both companies were ignorant of the fact that the term is derogatory slang for African-Americans perceived as being “black on the outside, but white on the inside.” When Mattel introduced the wheelchair-bound Becky, a disabled child discovered the doll’s wheelchair would not fit inside the elevator of Barbie’s Dream House.
But the brand survived all manner of controversy and competition. Mattel claims that over a billion Barbies have been sold worldwide, with three more being sold every second (except in Saudi Arabia, where the dolls were banned in 2003).
Ruth Handler retired from Mattel in 1975 in the midst of an SEC investigation, but by then she had already been focusing most of her efforts on her second career. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970, she’d undergone a radical mastectomy and, unimpressed with the prosthetic options available to her, had created a line of artificial breasts called NearlyMe. Given all the controversies surrounding Barbie’s bustline, the irony was not lost on Handler. “I’ve lived my life from breast to breast,” she was known to quip.
Ruth Handler died from complications related to colon cancer surgery on April 27, 2002, at the age of 85.
Barbie, meanwhile, continues to evolve more than fifty years after her creation. Young girls can now add a “Ken” tattoo to the lower backs of their “Totally Stylin’ Tattoos Barbie” or follow Barbie’s exploits on her Facebook and Twitter pages.
Originally published November 2010