Classic Toys: The Barbie Doll
Barbie Celebrates 50 Years of Success
The Barbie doll was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler, the wife and partner of the Mattel toy company co-founder, Elliot Handler. Post WWII, despite the ongoing baby boom, the Handlers felt there was not much available in the toy market. After some small successes making toys, the Handlers understood that in order to be truly successful, they had to produce toys that were durable, of high quality and unique. They produced a plastic ukulele called the “Uke-A-Doodle” and later, a very successful music box with a patented play mechanism. Financial success allowed them to become a sponsor of Walt Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” television program. The handlers capitalized on the Western craze of the late 1950s, and started producing toy guns and holsters in 1957.
Ruth Handler was inspired to create an adult doll for little girls after watching her own daughter, Barbara’s preference for adult paper dolls over baby dolls. The Handlers set out to design a teen fashion model doll. While Ruth was traveling in Europe with her children, she saw a German adult doll called Bild Lilli that was based on a cartoon character. It was a lot like what she had in mind for her doll, so she purchased three of them to take home. She gave one to her daughter and brought the other two to Mattel.
With the aid of Mattel toy engineer, Jack Ryan, Ruth redesigned the doll. She named the doll with her own daughter’s nickname, Barbie. The doll was introduced on March 9 at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. Although the reaction to the doll at the fair was cool, it was a tremendous hit with consumers. The Barbie doll had a nearly endless supply of new clothes offered to purchase separately as well, along with accessories like carry cases. In 1961 Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken was introduced. He was named after Ruth Handler’s son. Other dolls were added, including Midge (1963) and Skipper (1964). In 1965 Mattel’s total sales equaled more than $100 million. Fan clubs were started all over the United States, and by 1968, there were 1.5 million official members. Also in 1965, an African American doll named Christie was added to the lineup.
My own experience with Barbie saw her progress through some of her many developments. My first Barbie, (I must have gotten her around 1965) was what collectors now refer to as the “bubblehead Barbie”. I always found her a little scary, with a rather severe look and stiff bouffant hair. She had some great clothes, though. They included a gold brocade dress ensemble that would be worth quite a bit if I had hung onto it. Unfortunately, all the Barbie items I had were sold at a yard sale many years ago. My next Barbie was the 1968 model with brushable light brown hair. She was an innovative Barbie that had bendable knees and twisted at the waist. She was joined in 1969 by Barbie’s friend, Talking PJ. 1970 saw major changes to the Barbie lineup when the Mod Live Action Barbie and Ken dolls were released (I was fortunate enough to get both). These dolls were dressed like hippies and were fully jointed and could “dance” when their stands were rocked. Some of the accessories that I had then were the dune buggy, camper and beauty parlor. My friends and I played for endless hours dressing our dolls and using the different accessories.
Naturally, when I had my own girls, they were introduced to Barbies as well. It’s wonderful to have seen them enjoy her as much as I did. I’m only sorry they have outgrown dolls, but am sure they’ll pass on the tradition to their own kids some day, since Barbie looks as if she’ll be around for another 50 years.
The Mattel people were marketing geniuses, releasing new and improved dolls every year or so. There were beautiful clothes available to dress your doll foe every possible occasion. They also maintained excellent customer relations. I once broke the leg off my Talking PJ, so my mother called Mattel and they asked her to send them the doll. They sent us a brand new doll without any cost to us. That’s how to keep customers loyal, but I’m not sure many companies offer that same service today.
If you have any special Barbie memories you’d like to share, please blog-in.