When Mattel toy co-founder Ruth Handler suggested an adult-bodied female doll to company executives in the early 1950’s, they were less than enthusiastic. After all, infant dolls had dominated the market for decades, and fit the bill in preparing young girls for their future role as mothers. But when Handler noticed her daughter Barbara (Barbie’s namesake) giving adult roles to the paper dolls she played with, she knew there was a niche to be filled. Handler was in Europe in 1956 when she spotted a blonde-haired, long-legged doll named Bild Lilli, named after a German cartoon strip character. Lilli was a sassy, independent working girl and her womanly figure was just what Handler envisioned for her doll. Mattel took cues from the Lilli doll and adapted their own design which debuted as Barbie in 1959.
Marketed as a “Teen-age fashion model,” Barbie was the first mass-produced toy in America with adult features and was an instant success with 350,000 dolls sold in the first year of production. Mattel was a pioneer in television advertising, being the first toy maker to broadcast commercials directly to kids in 1955 as a sponsor for the Mickey Mouse Club program. Soon after her debut, Barbie commercials began to saturate children’s primetime TV programming and sales skyrocketed. By 1961, consumer demand had reached such a fever pitch that Mattel released a new doll. Barbie’s boyfriend Ken (named after Handler’s son) debuted in March of that year, clad in red swim trunks and sporting “molded” plastic hair. Barbie’s coterie continued to grow with the introduction of best friend Midge in 1963 and little sister Skipper in 1964.
More than 800 million Barbies have been sold worldwide, but being the most popular doll in history hasn’t always been easy. With a seemingly endless stash of clothing, cars, and “Dream Houses” Barbie has been branded as a poster child for materialism, and some have claimed that her supermodel-on-steroids good looks has created unrealistic expectations for young girls. Others defend Barbie as a positive influence who provided an alternative to the traditional gender roles of the 1950’s, a point echoed by her creator. “My whole philosophy of Barbie” said Ruth Handler “was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” Whatever her fate, there’s no denying that Barbie has played a significant role as both a mirror and model of American culture.
Adam Scher, Senior Curator
- For more fun like this, watch for the new Toys exhibit, opening at MHS Memorial Day Weekend 2014!