Ruth Handler (1916–2002) and the Barbie Doll (1959–)

It would have come as a shock to the little girls and their mothers who loved the Barbie doll to learn that she was originally a pornographic toy sold in German smoke shops and bars. The doll, then known as “Bild Lilli” and sporting the same blonde tresses and adult female form, was sold as a sex symbol to men, who bought it to prop up on their car dashboards or as a suggestive gift for their girlfriends. Before she was a doll, Bild Lilli was a cartoon character in a comic strip by cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien for the German tabloid Bild Zeitung. In the cartoon, Bild Lilli was portrayed as a gold digger who wore few clothes and dated only rich old men.

Fast forward to 2009 and the 50th anniversary of the Barbie doll, an icon of American girlhood and wholesome role model. She was the creation of Ruth Handler, president of the toy company Mattel, Inc., who discovered the Bild Lilli doll on a trip to Europe in the mid-1950s. She had been wanting to create a new doll with a realistic adult body for her own daughter, Barbara, to play with. Handler brought Bild Lilli home, reworked it, and renamed it Barbie after her daughter (later, Barbie acquired a boyfriend Ken, named after Handler’s son). The Barbie doll, wearing a zebra-striped bathing suit and stiletto heels, was introduced at the American Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959, and would propel the Mattel company to prodigious sales by the mid-1960s.

Little girls took to the Barbie doll in droves. That summer of 1959, they cleaned out the stock of Barbies on toy store shelves, maybe because Barbie was something entirely different in the doll world. She looked so grown-up and could wear fashionable clothing instead of Betsy Wetsy baby doll dresses and diapers, despite the fact that Barbie’s actual proportions would never be seen in nature. Eleven-and-a-half-inches tall, she had a large 39-inch bust and a tiny 18-inch waist and narrow 33-inch hips, resembling more a male fantasy than an actual female. Nonetheless, Barbie symbolized an ideal of beauty to little girls who wanted to grow up to be just like her, complete with fabulous wardrobe, Barbie Malibu Dream House, Barbie roadster, Barbie beauty parlor, and cute boyfriend. Her outfits had names like “Easter Parade,” “Busy Gal,” “Sorority Meeting,” and “Garden Party.” There were shoes, sunglasses, and hats to match. The Barbie owner could buy a special suitcase to carry her doll and its wardrobe and, later, could acquire her sidekick, Midge, plus Barbie’s younger sister, Skipper, and of course, her boyfriend Ken.

Barbie doll creator Ruth Handler (left), gets a kiss from a Barbie doll lookalike on the 35th anniversary of Barbie, the first mass-marketed adult-looking doll for girls.

Barbie doll creator Ruth Handler (left), gets a kiss from a Barbie doll lookalike on the 35th anniversary of Barbie, the first mass-marketed adult-looking doll for girls. (AP Photo/Robert Clark)

She was the country’s first mass-marketed, adult-looking doll for girls. The introduction and success of the Barbie doll on the toy scene marked a change in consumer behavior reaching from adults all the way down to preschoolers, a new form of consumption influenced by capitalism, celebrity, and cultural mores. Showing up just as the 1960s began, with the biggest generation of children in American history in the wings ready to want everything an energized advertising industry might suggest, the Barbie doll rode the wave of postwar affluence and consumer desire. She represented not only the aspirations of little girls but what the United States itself wanted to be, exceptional, glamorous, happy, privileged. She coincided with an explosion of pop culture and pop art that valorized the visual and the commercial. Ever after, sporting her plastic breasts and blonde tresses into the next century, Barbie was a change agent marking a transition in the United States into a materialistic commodity culture. It was not by accident that Pop Artist Andy Warhol, who had made paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans and sculptures of Brillo boxes, painted a picture of Barbie.

She has been, in all her permutations, the prize collectible of such culture mavens as Billy Boy, a jewelry designer who also wrote a book about Barbie: Her Life and Times, describing her history and his collection of more than 11,000 Barbies and 3,000 Ken dolls. There have been records, songs, games, a Barbie magazine, and now several Web sites. Barbie has been dressed in couture by famous French and American fashion designers for charity exhibits. Barbiemania continues, though at a subdued rate, as each new generation of girls (and even a few boys) discover Barbie and her world. More than one billion Barbies had been sold in 150 countries by the 50th anniversary of the doll.

Mattel, meanwhile, was about to go public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1960, the year after Barbie came on the scene, and was expanding its operations in Southern California, opening up a plant and new offices near Los Angeles. The toy company, founded in 1945 by Harold “Matt” Matson and Ruth Handler’s husband Elliot to produce picture frames, was named Mattel using the first syllables of their own first names. The introduction of the Barbie doll gave the company a huge boost that has sustained it even into the 21st century, as renewed demand for Barbies was still giving Mattel profits that beat Wall Street estimates. Yet the company was on a roller-coaster ride for much of its existence, saved at several turns by Barbie sales and, most significantly, by financier Michael Milken, who came to its rescue in 1984, investing $2 million to keep the company afloat after it tried ill advisedly to shift from making toys to producing electronic games. Milken told Barbara Walters that he helped Mattel out because “I believed in Barbie. There’s more Barbie dolls in this country than there are people.”

Ten years earlier in 1974, Mattel was close to going broke when Ruth Handler and some of her executives were indicted by the Securities and Exchange Commission for falsifying accounting information. Ruth resigned as president and the company requested that trading in Mattel stock be suspended. The Handlers were removed from the company and a new board of directors was installed. Later, Ruth was indicted again along with the Mattel vice president, the comptroller, and two other employees for white-collar crimes like falsifying financial records to inflate the price of Mattel stock. She received a 41-year prison sentence and a $57,000 fine, both of which the judge suspended. Handler retired and started a new business, Nearly Me, which supplied prostheses for breast cancer victims (of which she was one).

Ruth Handler herself had been born in Denver, Colorado, on November 4, 1916, the youngest of the 10 children of Jewish-Polish immigrants Ida and Jacob Moskowicz, a blacksmith. She left home at 19 for a vacation in Hollywood and never went back. Her high school sweetheart, Eliott Handler, followed her west. They were married in 1938 and had two children, Barbara and Kenneth (Barbie and Ken). She was involved in the Mattel company from the beginning in 1945 when it produced picture frames and then made dollhouse furniture from the scraps, which turned out to be more profitable. Mattel became a toy company, with its first success the “Uka-a-doodle” toy ukulele. Since then it has dominated the toy markets with such best sellers as the Cabbage Patch dolls, Chatty Cathy dolls, Matchbox cars, and Thomas the Tank Engines as well as toys representing popular entertainments like Harry Potter, Hannah Montana, The Lion King, The Simpsons, and more. In 1993, Mattel expanded and bought the Fisher-Price toy company, makers of Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street toys. Mattel also owns the popular American Girl doll franchise.

But it was the introduction of the Barbie doll that changed everything for Mattel. Ruth Handler said that in watching her daughter play with paper dolls, she was struck by the way the paper dolls seemed to represent her child’s dreams of her future and what her role might be. She resolved to find a doll that would be more suitable to those dreams, one that looked like a grown-up woman instead of the cherubic baby dolls then on the market. “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” Handler said in an interview with the New York Times in 1977. “If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts,” Handler said. “My whole philosophy of Barbie 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.” Ruth Handler thought of herself as a master marketer and even bought time on The Mickey Mouse Club to advertise Mattel toys.

She did not live long enough to deal with the major scandal that erupted in 2007 over toxic toys produced at Mattel’s Fisher-Price subsidiary in China. Lead paint was found to be 180 times the limit on Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street toys colored with the paint in Chinese factories. Mattel had to recall 18.2 million toy products in August of 2007 and two more recalls followed. The company was fined $2.3 million for violating the Federal lead paint ban, and the owner of the Chinese-based company committed suicide.

But the Barbie doll kept going despite the legal problems of the company and its founders. To the baby boomers who were first to own Barbie dolls, she had “probably the same iconic resonance as certain female saints—though not the same religious significance,” comments M. G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie, the definitive “biography” of the doll. But in the 1970s, as Barbie evolved with baby boomers into the disco era and Saturday Night Fever outfits, she also encountered a stern critique from feminists in the Second Wave of feminism. They criticized her simply for being a doll, first of all, and for encouraging girls to think of themselves merely as homemakers and sex objects while boys were playing with more educational toys. Barbie was also denounced for perpetuating a sexist image and for her airheaded comments as Talking Barbie, like “Math class is tough.” Mattel tried to keep Barbie out of sexual politics and the gender wars by making her socially irrelevant, emphasizing her femininity, wardrobe, and standard girly activities. She was cast as a socialite in a “Benefit Ball” ensemble, as a stewardess in “Flight Time” uniform, in “Sun-Loving Malibu” bathing suit and tan lines, dressed casually for her own “Barbie-Q,” and as the quintessential bride, dressed by Bob Mackie.

But as cultural changes and new generations of girls emerged, Barbie had to evolve. In the 1980s, baby boomers had become mothers themselves and were buying Barbie dolls for their daughters. Mattel reinvented the doll’s wardrobe and persona to suit changing times, and Barbie started to have aspirations for a career. She became a singer in a rock band MTV style as “Barbie and the Rockers,” an astronaut in a pink bodysuit with silver underwear, and a police officer in uniform. As the 1980s began, a Black Barbie version of the blonde original was successfully launched, followed in the same year by Hispanic Barbie in mantilla and peasant blouse. Most recently, Barbie has been cast as a computer engineer, complete with a hot pink laptop, and has been the model for a series of Mad Men dolls depicting characters from a popular television series about the 1960s advertising world.

Toys and dolls of course have a history as old as humankind, and children’s play is considered a vital aspect of development by psychologists today. Probably one of the earliest toys to evolve was the ball. Egyptian children had balls and tops as well as many toys shaped like animals. Dolls are another matter. For a very long time, ancient doll figures were essentially religious objects used in ritual, not toys for children. In the Chinese and Korean languages, the word “doll” is from a root word for idol. But Native Americans and Eskimos appear to have fashioned small replicas of religious dolls for their children, who were often buried with their dolls. Greek and Roman children had clay dolls as well as rag dolls to play with as well as toy soldiers and animal toys and, perhaps, even a toy Trojan horse. Wooden dolls and puppets made in medieval times have survived, and dollhouses seem to have emerged in 16th-century Germany. Interestingly, most dolls of earlier periods seem to have been adult dolls. The baby doll actually did not appear until the 19th century, around 1820, in England. Dolls had begun to be made of many materials, including porcelain for their heads, and they increasingly came with complete wardrobes and accoutrements. Portrait dolls depicting famous personages such as George and Martha Washington and Queen Victoria’s nine children were popular, in the mode of today’s celebrity dolls. The teddy bear, invented in the United States but manufactured to perfection in Germany, was also a favorite, as animal toys have been for children since ancient times.

Dolls have always been marked out as the province of little girls. When Barbie came on the scene, however, the doll world was entirely about baby dolls who wore diapers and baby clothes. Barbie’s grown-up look and sophisticated wardrobe, in contrast, were a magnet for girls then. Even as they entered their early teens, they kept on “playing Barbies.” Today, however, girls seem to have outgrown dolls at an early age, even their Barbies. They are growing up faster, and by the time they are 7 or 8, many little girls seem to have moved on from dolls into what is being called a “tween” culture of 8- to 12-year-olds that seems to be short-circuiting childhood. Girls may still own a Barbie doll, but perhaps because of media saturation, its emphasis on celebrity, and the inroads of the digital world, young girls’ interests increasingly are focused on technology and digital devices. “By the time they hit 4 or 5, they want a cellphone,” laments the head of one family-owned doll company. And now there is online doll play. At Barbie’s, for example, girls can dress Barbie and decorate her house. No surprise, physical doll sales have declined 20 percent in the first decade of the 21st century.

Ruth Handler did not live to see her iconic creation join the digital age. She died in 2002 at the age of 85, survived by her husband of 63 years and her daughter, Barbara Segal (son Ken died in 1994).

—Mary Cross


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Fraser, Antonia. A History of Toys. Germany: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd, 1966.

Kershaw, Sarah. “Ruth Handler, Whose Barbie Gave Dolls Curves, Dies at 85.” The New York Times, April 29, 2002. .

Lord, M.G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed. The Barbie Chronicles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.