Barbie dolls have been around for over 40 years, and they’re just as popular today as they were in 1959.
Brief History of Barbie Dolls
In the 1950s, there were two types of dolls in America: two-dimensional paper dolls and cuddly baby dolls. A college-educated housewife named Ruth Handler bought a German fashion doll and was inspired to change the face of toys forever. The doll, Lilli, was fashionable and bendable, with brushable hair.
Deeply inspired by Lilli, Ruth gained a patent for her own fashion doll in 1958. The first doll was developed in 1959. Ruth and her husband, co-founders of toy giant Mattel, named the doll after their daughter Barbara. The doll’s little known full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts.
Despite an initially luke-warm reception, the Handlers continued marketing Barbie. The earliest dolls sold for $3. Within two years, orderings were pouring in so fast that the Handlers could not keep up.
Ruth had decided early on that Barbie would be a hopeful and optimistic figure for young girls, empowering them to dream and reach for the stars. Early Barbies were “social butterflies,” and spent their time attending parties and playing tennis.
Ken was introduced in 1961 and was named after Ruth’s son.
Ever-Evolving Career Woman
After her beginnings as a woman of leisure, Barbie went to college and embarked on numerous careers. In a quest to show girls that they can truly achieve anything, Barbie has worked as the following:
Diversity in Barbie Dolls
Mattel has aimed to promote tolerance and diversity in its dolls, and Barbie is an excellent example of that. There are Barbie dolls representing several countries of the world, including China, Korea, and Holland. Barbie has also been depicted in a wheelchair and with varying disabilities. Just as there are working Barbies, there are also Barbie dolls in more traditional stay-at-home roles. Despite ongoing criticism for her impossibly curvaceous figure, numerous studies indicate that playing with Barbies can actually be good for a girl’s self-esteem.
Today’s Popular Styles
Today, some of the most popular Barbie dolls are also stars of the small- and big-screen. From the Disney princesses to the beloved Barbie movies, television inspired Barbies fill the store shelves. Some favorites include:
Barbie dolls are a favorite item among collectors. While some focus on vintage dolls, others prefer the modern-day Barbies. Mattel releases collectible-quality dolls each year. The Holiday Barbies and Barbies of the World are particularly popular. Recent releases include:
Ruth Handler watched her daughter Barbara at play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles. At the time, most children’s toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel’s directors.
During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children Barbara and Kenneth, Ruth Handler came across German toy doll called Bild Lilli. The adult-figured doll was exactly what Handler had in mind, so she purchased three of them. She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel. The Lilli doll was based on a popular character appearing in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Lilli was a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to babies, it became popular with adults who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.
Upon her return to the United States, Handler reworked the design of the doll (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and the doll was given a new name, Barbie, after Handler’s daughter Barbara. The doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is also used as Barbie’s official birthday.
Mattel acquired the rights to the Bild Lilli doll in 1964 and production of Lilli was stopped. The first Barbie doll wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and signature topknot ponytail, and was available as either a blonde or brunette. The doll was marketed as a “Teen-age Fashion Model,” with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.
Ruth Handler believed that it was important for Barbie to have an adult appearance, and early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll’s chest, which had distinct breasts. Barbie’s appearance has been changed many times, most notably in 1971 when the doll’s eyes were adjusted to look forwards rather than having the demure sideways glance of the original model.
Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television and advertising, which has been copied widely by other toys. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.
The standard range of Barbie dolls and related accessories are manufactured to approximately 1/6th scale, which is also known as playscale. Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a huge range of Barbie branded goods such as books, fashion items and video games. Barbie has appeared in a series of animated films and made a brief guest appearance in the 1999 film Toy Story 2.
Barbie has become a cultural icon and has been given honors that are rare in the toy world. In 1974 a section of Times Square in New York City was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week, In 1985 the artist Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie.