Barbie burst on the scene in March 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City. The 11.5-inch-tall Barbie dolls were the brainchild of Ruth Handler, who, along with her husband Elliot, founded Mattel in 1945. Barbie had “rooted hair, flesh-toned skin, and movable arms, legs, and head.”
The idea for Barbie came after Ruth watched her daughter Barbara (Barbie’s namesake) playing “grown up” with teenage paper dolls. She noticed that Barbara loved to change the doll’s paper outfits. At the time, the dolls on the market portrayed either babies or young girls. Ruth thought an older doll would be a hit. It took Mattel designers six years to create Barbie, and her physical appearance was based on a German doll that was a risqué gag gift for men. The idea of a mature doll with a curvy figure shocked many toy buyers, who rejected Barbie. Ruth and Elliot were not deterred. Instead, they took Barbie straight to the public through television ads. The gamble worked, and Barbie quickly grew in popularity.
The earliest ad for Barbie that appears in our archives is in July 1959. Within months, Barbie topped many Christmas lists. In 1961, Ruth designed Barbie’s male counterpart, Ken (named after Ruth’s son Kenneth).
Barbie’s meteoric rise continued, and Mattel added accessories like the Barbie dream house, sports cars, and more clothing. Next came new dolls like Barbie’s best friend, Midge, and little sister, Skipper. Starting in 1968, Barbie added dolls from different races, beginning with the Black Christie doll.
Barbie is entering her 65th year. She has evolved in appearance over the years and has had hundreds of careers ranging from pilot to politician. Some praise her for helping women break through the glass ceiling, while others criticize Barbie for sexualizing girls and promoting unrealistic body types.
In the early 2000s, Barbie struggled to stay relevant as other toy companies began manufacturing dolls with more diversity. In 2020, Mattel released its most diverse doll line ever as Barbie struggled to reinvent herself. Nobody can dispute Barbie’s popularity; she is one of the top-selling toys of all time. Her summer movie is expected to be a blockbuster.
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