Barbie History: The Real Story Behind the Original Barbie
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.
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 she 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 torn 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
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.
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 he 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 part 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.
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!
Timeline of the Original Barbie
Before Barbie is born . . .
Mattel starts up in CA
Mattel incorporates; Ruth becomes Executive Vice President
Mattel begins TV commercials for their toys
The Handler family goes on vacation; Ruth discovers Bild-Lilli
Barbie is introduced at the New York Toy Fair
Mattel acquires the rights to Bild-Lilli and production of that doll ends
- 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.