A timeless toy for girls of all ages, Barbie was the brainchild of Ruth Handler. She had watched her daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls as if they were adults, and realized a gap in the market. Ruth’s husband, Elliot Handler, was a co-founder of Mattel. He wasn’t impressed by his wife’s idea.
In 1956, the Handlers traveled to Europe, where Ruth found a Bild Lilli – a German toy doll based on a popular comic strip – that closely resembled Ruth’s idea. She bought three of them, giving one to her daughter and presenting the others to Mattel. The adult-figured doll was initially marketed to adults, but gained the attention of children who loved dressing her in various outfits that could be purchased separately.
Ruth worked with noted designer Jack Ryan and on March 9, 1959, Barbie (named after Ruth’s daughter) was introduced in New York at the American International Toy Show. (Mattel later acquired the rights to the Bild Lillie doll, and ceased production of her in 1964, which many agree helped pave the way for Barbie’s smashing success worldwide.)
The original Barbie doll was available in both blonde and brunette. She wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit, and her signature ponytail. The dolls were made in Japan, and the clothes were hand-stitched. Marketed as a Teenage Fashion Model, about 350,000 Barbies were sold during the first year. There was some controversy over Barbie’s initial appearance – some parents had issues with her chest. Her appearance has been altered over the years, including her eyes which, in 1971, were aligned to look straight ahead (they’d previously portrayed her as shy and modest).
Barbie was one of the first toys with an extensive marketing strategy based on television advertising. Check out this 1960s commercial, announcing Barbie’s new, bendable legs:
The success of Barbie and her friends was (and still is) heavily based on fashion. The initial line of clothes were designed Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. Many accessories were also released, and the company worked hard at marketing “The Barbie Look”.
Over the years, more than 130 friends, family and friends of Barbie’s friends have been released. Mattel even created a line of celebrity dolls. Although not released under the Barbie brand, the molds are very similar and these dolls – featuring the likeness of Farah Fawcett, Marie Osmond, and more than 40 others – are sometimes included in Barbie reference publications.
Barbie’s birthday is recognized as March 9. In 2009, Mattel released a 50th birthday replica of the original doll.
Some interesting facts about Barbie:
- She first sold for $3.00.
- Ken – named after Ruth and Elliot Handler’s son – was introduced on March 11, 1961.
- The highest auctioned price for an original Barbie in mint condition? $27,450.
- Today, it is estimated that 90% of girls aged 3 to 10 own at least one Barbie doll. Of those, the average number of dolls for those aged 3-6 is 12.
- Barbie maintains being the #1 doll property in the US. The line is the #1 worldwide property in traditional toy history.
- Barbie’s first Dream House was released in 1962. It featured designs and fashions of the early ’60s and was made of cardboard.
Do you remember your first Barbie? What was your favorite outfit or accessory?