Barbie History: The Real Story Behind the Original Barbie

Updated on June 7, 2016
35th Anniversary (reproduction) Barbie.  I'm not lucky enough to own a #1!
35th Anniversary (reproduction) Barbie. I'm not lucky enough to own a #1! | Source

History of Mattel Toys (Pre-Barbie)

In 1945, a young couple named Ruth and Elliot Handler began a small toy company with their friend Harold Matson. By combining their names "Mat" and "Ell", they arrived at the name of "Mattel".

Elliot, an introspective and creative soul, designed picture frames while Ruth with her go-getting attitude served as saleswoman. She knew she could sell anything he created. Elliot began a side business designing individual pieces of dollhouse furniture from his own wood scrap and Matson's plastic scrap, and Ruth convinced him to design full sets instead.

Elliot's talent with all kinds of design allowed Mattel to expand to a full line of toys, including Birdy Bank and Make-Believe Makeup Set in 1946, the Uke-A-Doodle in 1947 (a toy ukelele), and the Futurland Grand Toy Piano in 1948.

But Ruth had a dream to create her own toy, a fashion doll.

These paper doll clothes are bound to easily fall off her shoulders.
These paper doll clothes are bound to easily fall off her shoulders. | Source

Fashion Dolls = Lifelike Dolls

But who wants to dress up a doll with a shapeless figure? Of all the toys they had to choose from, the Handlers' daughter Barbara and her friends would focus on the adult-style paper dolls and their clothes most often. They mimicked adult life and situations as they played with shapeless, straight-legged doll after doll, engaging in adult-type conversation and styling outfits as best they could with the floppy paper at their disposal.

Handler imagined a toy that would foster more expressive playtime, and thought about how the toy could be improved:

  • Something sturdier, perhaps of plastic instead of flimsy card
  • Realistic, fashionable clothes with zippers instead of easily teared paper clothes with inadequate tabs
  • A curvaceous, womanly figure; styled hair; makeup; and manicured nails rather than childlike, lumpy bodies and appendages
  • Interchangeable outfits that more than one doll could use

The original Bild Lilli doll. Similarities of Barbie to her are truly astonishing.
The original Bild Lilli doll. Similarities of Barbie to her are truly astonishing. | Source

Bild-Lilli in Germany

On a family vacation to Europe in 1956, Handler found what she had been searching for. Her name was Bild-Lilli, and she was a sexy gag gift doll born of marketing for the comic pages of the Bild-Zeitung newspaper. Handler was ecstatic. Could this be it?

But the design needed work. Lilli was overtly sexual and made of hard plastic -- Handler wanted something softer in both look and feel.

However, with her blonde ponytail tied with a black wire, her full lips painted into a pert red Cupid's bow, long swanlike neck, and pierced ears, Bild Lilli was a terrific starting point for Handler's dream design.

Barbie spun and baked in molds and ovens like this one.
Barbie spun and baked in molds and ovens like this one. | Source

Original Barbie design and marketing

It took three years to get Barbie Teenage Fashion Model ready for her debut.

A special powdered form of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was created by organic chemists at B.F. Goodrich, which was able to successfully handle the detailed rotation molds required for the doll. Barbie had to bake in a special hot air oven, a design so new the factories had to go through much trial and error to get it right.

Bud Westmore was hired to design Barbie's face. Westmore, a makeup artist, had many credits to his name including Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He modified Lilli's blatantly sexy style into a softer look, and rooted Barbie's hair.

For clothing they located Charlotte Buettenback Johnson, a fashion designer who would create the interchangeable outfits for Barbie. Clothes were potentially the most profitable of the Barbie line, and they had to get the details right. Johnson located the appropriate fabrics and findings while designing fashionable clothing and undergarments for the doll.

But they still had to sell Barbie. So Handler hired Ernest Dichter, a marketeer with a Freudian background and the belief that "sex sells", to perform market analysis on Barbie. Dichter was right about sex selling, although the 191 girls and 45 mothers he interviewed had differing opinions. The daughters wanted to look like Barbie with her long legs and buxom allure. They wanted to dress like women. And their mothers? They couldn't stand the disproportionate plastic plaything.

Tennis, Anyone? Barbie Fashion #961. Note the original Barbie label (and the incorrect tennis racquets).
Tennis, Anyone? Barbie Fashion #961. Note the original Barbie label (and the incorrect tennis racquets). | Source
See the tiny zipper, pleats, and darts? That is the type of detail Ruth Handler dreamed of.
See the tiny zipper, pleats, and darts? That is the type of detail Ruth Handler dreamed of. | Source

Barbie at the 1959 New York Toy Fair

The time had come to unveil Barbie at the New York Toy Fair and to the masses.

She was shown with 22 outfits to choose from, including accessories to complete each look. Special lighting accentuated her voluptuous form.

Some of the outfits she was shown wearing were:

  • A white wedding gown with veil and bouquet
  • A striped sundress with matching hat
  • A ballerina outfit with tutu
  • A tennis outfit with racquet
  • A ball gown with a faux fur wrap
  • The quintessential black-and-white-striped strapless bathing suit with sunglasses, gold-tone hoop earrings, and open-toed black shoes

Handler met with Lou Kieso, a buyer from Sears, Roebuck with the ordering power to make or break a new toy. Unfortunately, he was not sold on the womanly curves and did not place an order, nor leave with a sample doll. Neither did half the other buyers from the show.

Handler, understandably panic-stricken, realized her sales projections were worthless and immediately contacted the plants in Japan to cut production by 40 percent. Would Barbie make it?

Barbie is a success

But before Toy Fair, Handler had bought plenty of commercial time on The Mickey Mouse Club. And when summertime rolled around, Mattel began receiving orders from buyers wanting the dolls.

The rest is history. Barbie would eventually go on to become one of the most controversial toys ever. Viva Barbie!

Barbie's commercial debut

Timeline of the Original Barbie

(click column header to sort results)
Year  
Before Barbie is born...  
1945
Mattel starts up in CA
1948
Mattel incorporates; Ruth becomes Executive Vice President
1955
Mattel begins tv commercials for their toys
1956
The Handler family goes on vacation; Ruth discovers Bild-Lilli
1959
Barbie is introduced at the New York Toy Fair
1964
Mattel acquires the rights to Bild-Lilli and production of that doll ends

Sources

  • Gerber, Robin. Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
  • Tosa, Marco. Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion,. Fantasy, and Fun. New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1998.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        katelyn 

        22 months ago

        Weird this really change my opinion a

        little bit on barbie

      • profile image

        Shirley Asberry 

        4 years ago

        When I was a little girl I had the barbie with the black and white one piece bathing suit on. Her blonde hair was up in a ponytail. I loved her so much. I want to know if anyone else has one like her. And I want to know the value.

      • profile image

        sneha barbie 

        4 years ago

        i think that im the g

        reatest fan of barbie i love it.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        5 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks so much, vibesites! I appreciate the comment and votes. :)

      • vibesites profile image

        vibesites 

        5 years ago from United States

        Very interesting and well-researched hub, thanks for providing a history and creation of Barbie and her outfits. Voted up, awesome and interesting. :)

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, Tillson! This article was a great deal of fun to write, too. Thanks for stopping by, reading, and the votes. :^)

      • tillsontitan profile image

        Mary Craig 

        6 years ago from New York

        Great background and information about America's favorite fashion doll. You really did your research. Voted up and interesting.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, onlooker! :^)

        I wonder what Handler would say if she saw the Barbies and Kens of today? Things that make you go "hmmm".

      • profile image

        onlooker 

        6 years ago

        Very informative, thank you, Rachel! Handler really did a great job into bringing this awesome beauty into life and a super hit at that one too! Enjoyed the pictures also.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Suzette, now I have to see if I can find any of the old style patterns for my collection! :^)

      • suzettenaples profile image

        Suzette Walker 

        6 years ago from Taos, NM

        clevercat: Yes, they were Simplicity patterns, but also Vogue patterns put out some Barbie doll clothing patterns. I remember being amazed that my mom was able to make those dresses so small with all the little details and embellishments. The clothes were beautiful and I liked them better than the store bought Barbie dresses.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hiya Daisy,

        You could have kept the box, and then also played with the Barbie -- then you'd have the best of both worlds! ;^)

        Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

      • Daisy Mariposa profile image

        Daisy Mariposa 

        6 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

        theclevercat,

        What a great article! I've never owned a Barbie, but I wish I had...and had never taken it out of the box. What a collectible that would be.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, Suzette! So true... the dolls were beautiful, but it was all about the clothes! I was born in the 70's, so never had the original, but my mom also got those patterns (were they Simplicity?) and me and my sister had the most fabulous Barbie clothes too. :-)

        I just put out a video hub to make Barbie clothes with wallpaper... her store-bought clothes are pretty boring now and still cost an arm and a leg!

        Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. :-)

      • suzettenaples profile image

        Suzette Walker 

        6 years ago from Taos, NM

        Does this bring back memories or what? I was a child during the '60's and of course had a Barbie doll, Ken doll, and a Midge doll - all by Mattel. The hours and hours of play and outfit changing were immense during my childhood. My mom actually sewed Barbie doll clothes - one of the pattern companies actually came out with a line of Barbie doll patterns. I still have my original Barbie doll. What an icon from the '60's! This is a great hub and a very enjoyable read.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        OMG! Thanks, Tammy! I can't wait to check it out. It was really kind of you to submit there... thanks again! Here's to good hub karma! *clink* :^)

      • tammyswallow profile image

        Tammy 

        6 years ago from North Carolina

        Good things happen to Hubbers when they support each other. I submitted this to Digg and it has been promoted as an entertainment blog. ;) We have some good hub Karma. Thanks again!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hiya, tammyswallow! Thanks so much for the read, comment, share, and follow! (Hey, I'm a poet and I didn't even know it! Heh.)

        Yes, the doll is lovely, but the history behind making her is really interesting. I think it was inevitable that Barbie ended up being so popular. Thanks again!

      • tammyswallow profile image

        Tammy 

        6 years ago from North Carolina

        Great hub on the history of the Barbie Doll. I knew she was invented long ago, but I didn't know how the conglaumerate started. Very interesting and well written! Voting up and sharing!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hiya, CloudExplorer and great to see you!

        I had a really good time researching this topic and I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it. Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment and also the votes. I can definitely relate to it myself. :-)

      • CloudExplorer profile image

        Mike Pugh 

        6 years ago from New York City

        Just loving the Barbie history here, this hub is definitely a good historical archive collection of all things Barbie related.

        I especially liked the info on all of her changes of outfits, and what it took to get her into real life action for her fanned young Barbie supporters, I'm sure most woman worldwide can relate to this informative hub.

        Awesome hub here! Voted up and out.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hey, Rebecca! Yes, Barbie has really had some top-notch designers. Thanks for the compliment and comment! :-)

      • rebeccamealey profile image

        Rebecca Mealey 

        6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

        This brought back a lot of memories playing with Barbie and Ken. I used to love going to buy her outfits and always delighted in the "real thing." not the fake clothes. I enjoyed your Hub. Good work!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, Cardelean! She makes for a fascinating subject. :^)

      • cardelean profile image

        cardelean 

        6 years ago from Michigan

        I never knew the full history of Barbie. I found this very fascinating. Thanks for sharing all of your information!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, CreateHubpages. I'm so glad you liked it!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi ishwaryaa22! Thanks so much. I agree that the creators were brilliant, too. Driven, too!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Anamika, thanks! Barbie collectors, unite! :-)

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Victoria, thank you so much! I really appreciate the votes and I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

        Fabulous about keeping your childhood treasures... me too! :-)

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, sgbrown! Barbies are one of those things that people either love or hate, and I'm proud to count myself in the latter.

      • CreateHubpages profile image

        CreateHubpages 

        6 years ago

        It's great to read the history of the famous doll Barbie.

      • ishwaryaa22 profile image

        Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 

        6 years ago from Chennai, India

        An entertaining hub on one of my memorable childhood dolls- Barbie! You showed us an amazing story of Barbie doll that came into existence, thanks to its brilliant creators! Well done!

        Thanks for SHARING. Interesting. Voted up.

      • Anamika S profile image

        Anamika S Jain 

        6 years ago from Mumbai - Maharashtra, India

        Awesome Hub! I am a Barbie Collector and absolutely adore them. Hub Voted up!

      • Victoria Lynn profile image

        Victoria Lynn 

        6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

        Great hub! I love Barbie and still have most of my Barbie stuff from my childhood. I enjoyed reading about how Barbie came about. Thanks for writing this hub. Enjoyed it! Many votes!

      • sgbrown profile image

        Sheila Brown 

        6 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

        Interesting information. I can't count how many Barbies I had when I was a kid. Voted up and interesting! :)

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, Teresa! Yes, when I was younger I only thought about the fashions and the prettiness, but now that I'm older, I wonder about the engineering and true design behind the lovely Babs.

      • Teresa Coppens profile image

        Teresa Coppens 

        6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        wonderful hub. I have many Barbie crazy nieces who are older now and would love to hear the real story behind Barbie.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi, Robin! Yes, it really is amazing and it it's a lost art. There are plenty of vintage patterns available here and there, but one needs plenty of patience and fairly small fingers! Lol

        Thanks about the outfit... I got it on eBay years ago.

      • Robin profile image

        Robin Edmondson 

        6 years ago from San Francisco

        Wow! Isn't it amazing the amount of work that was put into dolls back then. I know my grandmother use to make most of the clothes for my mom's dolls; that is such a lost art. I loved the photos you had of the Barbie tennis outfit. Great history lesson for me!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, Simone!

        As a career legacy, oh my. What a coup!

      • Simone Smith profile image

        Simone Haruko Smith 

        6 years ago from San Francisco

        What a fun read this was! I love how you've presented several of the people behind the doll's creation. Gosh, could you imagine having Barbie as one of your career legacies?

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi, flashmakeit! Yes, Ruth really gave this project her all, despite the early and later controversy surrounding Barbie. Thanks so much for the compliment!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hey, CC! Well, according to the text I researched, Barbie was voluptuous before Dichter checked her out... he actually suggested enlarging her bust further! Unfortunately, there are numerical proportions listed from before those meetings, but not after.

      • flashmakeit profile image

        flashmakeit 

        6 years ago from usa

        Delightful hub about the making of the Barbie doll Ruth was determined and invested a lot into making her doll. I am glad she knew the most girls like attractive dolls and after she sold so many doll Sears then start stocking up all the Barbie dolls they could. I think you did a wonderful job with this hub theclevercat!

      • cclitgirl profile image

        Cynthia Calhoun 

        6 years ago from Western NC

        Very interesting history about Barbie. Wow - I always knew she was rather "voluptuous" but who knew that it was for all those Freudian reasons. Great hub! Voted up and across.

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Oh yes! She looks great for over 50, don't you think? ;^)

        Thanks you Alissa for the votes!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        The original clothes were much better made than the machine-made stuff today and even of 20 years ago. Originally, the clothes were completed piecework-style in Japan and the material was of very good quality. Today, not so much.

      • Brainy Bunny profile image

        Brainy Bunny 

        6 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

        It had socks? I wonder how they kept them from getting lumpy at the toes. My Barbies' socks and tights are always too lumpy to put their shoes on over.

      • alissaroberts profile image

        Alissa Roberts 

        6 years ago from Normandy, TN

        Good background history on Barbie! I didn't even realize she has been around for over 50 years. Actually I got to buy a new Barbie about a month ago for my niece and I was quite surprised how different Ken looked! Nothing like he did when I was little that's for sure! Great job - voted up and interesting!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks, Brainy Bunny!

        Most likely the most expensive outfit would have been the wedding ensemble or anything with a lot of pieces. For example, the "Tennis, Anyone?" fashion had the jacket, dress, socks, shoes, racquet, ball, and a little faux book.

      • Brainy Bunny profile image

        Brainy Bunny 

        6 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

        I watched the commercial, and I find it very interesting that while the dolls were three dollars, the outfits could cost up to five! I wonder what the most expensive ones were.

        Great hub. Voted up, awesome, and sharing!

      • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

        Rachel Vega 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Yes, definitely! I'm on it. :^D

      • ithabise profile image

        Michael S. 

        6 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

        Very interesting! I never knew the story of Barbie. Now you need to tell us the evolution of Ken--intriguing!

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