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The Stolen Legacy of Bild Lilli

An avid doll collector, Koriander Bullard is not afraid of the dark side of the toy aisle.

Bild Lilli

Bild Lilli

Who's That Girl?

In 1952, Reinhard Beuthien had been hired by company Axel Springer SE to draw a one-panel comic for their brand new tabloid Bild. The heavily nationalist and conservative tabloid needed a cartoon.

So he drew a nasty, unruly baby girl.

It flopped with his editor.

So he grew her up, added a ponytail, gave her a buxom figure, and drew a gag where she was asking a fortune teller for the address and telephone number of the tall, dark, and handsome men most fortune-tellers tell young ladies they see in their crystal balls.

On June 24, 1952, much of Germany fell in love with this mysterious blonde. It wouldn't be long before the country would know her by one name, Bild Lilli.

Appealing to a mostly male demographic, Lilli turned heads. Comfortable in her femininity, Lilli was constantly seen wearing fashionable and somewhat risque clothes in skimpy and tight-fitting cuts. While her female friends and co-workers were jealous of her figure, and more religious readers were put off by her open sexuality, it was seldom that Lilli was on-purpose flaunting her looks—unless, of course, she was actively trying to get a rich man's attention.

This is a drawback to Lilli's character, in that she saw men as objects and never as people. She was always more interested in their money and in their looks than in anything else, and she never had the same boyfriend twice.

Still, it was her never-ending challenge to the status quo that eventually drew in female readers. In one famous strip, a police officer threatens to arrest her because it was still highly illegal in most places outside of a beach to be caught in public in a bikini. Lilli's response? "Oh, and in your opinion, what part should I take off?"

Lilli's popularity grew so fast that Bild decided to merchandise their new star. With the blessing of Axel Springer, Bild contacted toy designer Max Weissbrodt at the O&M Haußer toy company.

He designed a 12-inch plastic fashion doll with multiple parts for articulation. Her head turned separately from the rest of her body. A special doll wig was glued onto a special scalp, which was then attached to the head by a screw on the inside of the doll's head. Her legs attached at the hip, so when she sat down, her legs stayed together. She had rooted eyelashes, painted nails, a full face of makeup, styled hair, and molded-on shoes. The patent was approved straight away.

By 1953, less than a year since her comic debut, Bild Lilli dolls found themselves at tobacconists and newspaper kiosks in plastic tubes with tiny doll-sized copies of recent issues of Bild.

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Lilli Makes History

Bild Lilli was as innovative of a doll as she was scandalous.

Lilli wasn't only the world's first mass-marketed plastic fashion doll; she was also the first to come in different sizes.

While the 12-inch dolls are the more famous, there were also 7-inch dolls sold at slightly lower prices but made just as well. This is a practice that not only reached a wide audience of doll collectors; it also was a trend that later influenced the Japanese and North American Sailor Moon dolls varying size increments. Other dolls that would offer the same characters but in different sizes include Blythe, Bratz, and Tressy.

Another trend Bild Lilli popularized was offering the same doll but in new outfits. These fashionable, daring, and gorgeous costumes were so well designed, that it wasn't long before they were sold separately.

While she was a hit with men, it wasn't too long before women started enjoying the dolls too. Newspaper ads encouraged men to buy them for their wives and girlfriends. Some women would even use the dolls as inspiration for new outfits for themselves, a revived trend from the 19th century when well-off women would purchase gowns based on ones seen on dolls for store windows.

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An International Lilli

Other toy companies noticed how children also enjoyed this doll, so they began to make unofficial dollhouses, furniture, clothes, and accessories to accommodate Lilli, while O&M Haußer released Lilli in new hair colors.

Soon, Lilli was being sold in Italy, Scandinavia, England, and shockingly, she was in fact sold in the United States as just "Lilli" or as "Lilli Marleen/Marlene" and marketed very briefly to little girls.

As the 1950s marched on, knock-off dolls and bootlegs also began to become a big problem worldwide. In Hong Kong, bootleg Lilli dolls were sold in pink boxes where Lilli was smoking a cigarette. In Spain, Lilli had a darker-skinned "friend" with dark brown and black hair that was quickly rejected by religious families. "Miss Paris" and "Miss Marlene" found their way to America and France as more and more clones wound up under Christmas trees and on the shelves of thrift stores.

But this only fueled Lilli's momentum. In 1958, the black and white murder comedy Lilli – ein Mädchen aus der Großstadt or Lilli A Girl From The Big City debuted in German cinemas. The live-action film starring Danish actress Ann Smyrner featured Lilli in a race against time to help the police stop a pastor-turned-gangster-and-murderer who is smuggling counterfeit bills. In the film, Lilli uses her charms and seductive good looks to deal with sleazy and suspicious men at a hotel while also holding down her job at a newspaper.

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A Lilli Plucked

In 1956, Ruth Handler took a vacation with her husband and children Barbara (Barbie) and Kenneth (Ken) Handler to Germany. There, she purchased a few Bild Lilli dolls for herself, admiring the cute fashions. She was already thinking about how she wanted a 3D version of the paper dolls her daughter enjoyed playing with, something that was more grown-up than the Cissy doll, a 1955 fashion doll with a teenage body but a baby doll head, and Bild Lilli had the proportions she was looking for.

Ruth worked on prototype sketches. In 1958, she got the copyright and trademark for the name "Barbie," which was then sent to Random House to be used on tie-in books for her new project, including the mystery book Barbie's Secret, which was written in 1958 and would be published in 1964.

Then in 1959, an 11 1/2 inch plastic fashion doll with rooted—not glued hair, painted finger and toenails, legs that stayed closed when she sat, and a head on a swivel debuted in a black and white striped one-piece.

Her name was Barbie, and she looked exactly like Bild Lilli.

Around this time, the rights to Bild Lilli's dolls were usurped by Louis Marx and Company, while Mattel began a hostile takeover of the Bild Lilli copyrights, ousting Bild, O&M Haußer, and Reinhard Beuthien from the world they had created. By 1961, Lilli no longer appeared in any new comics, and most of her cartoons and her film are largely suppressed.

Reinhard Beuthien would try again with new comics Schwabinchen in Bavaria and Gigi in Germany, but since they were less funny than Lilli and were seen as knockoffs of his previous creation, they quietly faded into obscurity.

O&M Haußer and Marx would close doors in the 1980s while Bild continues today as a conservative tabloid in Germany.

Barbie's legacy is one that sprouted from a Lilli.

© 2021 Koriander Bullard

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