Once upon a time in 1950′s USA the wife of a toy manufacturer suggested to her husband that what little girls needed was a doll they could pretend to be adults with. The woman was Ruth Handler – mind you, she was not just his wife, but also his business partner in their company Mattel…quite a modern arrangement. Her husband , Elliot initially disagreed.
America was embroiled in social changes. Minority rights, including women’s rights, were bubbling back to the surface of American thought…after years of being anesthetized during the previous world conflict. Little girls no longer had to cling to baby dolls – and their role model: the perfect housewife without education, dependent on a man – erased forever by the necessity of having women in the workplace during WWII. Doors at colleges had slowly been opening since the late 19th century. By 1945, a woman was finally accepted at Harvard Medical School. Women’s self esteem were growing along with their education and increasing rights.
While visiting Switzerland in 1956, she bought 3 German dolls – Bild Lillis – for her daughter, claiming to not fully realize their adult nature at the time of purchase – but the idea of “Barbie” had been smoldering for sometime within her. Ruth Handler knew that this was the time for a new role model for the modern girl – an adult doll (meaning with breasts) -was much more fun to play with than the paper dress-up dolls her daughter, Barbie, doted on.
Harold Mattson and Elliot Handler were the cofounders of Mattel (Matt(son) and El(liot)). World War II had been financially difficult for Mattel. Mattson had sold his share in the floundering company back to Elliot Handler in 1946. Mattel’s focus was on creating items with the new materials of the time – and plastic at the forefront. Mattel tried several directions to create a product the public would buy.
Now, the “Lilli” doll in hand, Ruth paired up with Mattel Toy Engineer Jack Ryan to create “Barbie” – named for her daughter. Jack Ryan, might be known more to the public as the sixth husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor. The Handlers went on to hire Charlotte Johnson, a fashion designer, to create Barbie’s wardrobe.
Whatever you think about Barbie, the determination of Ruth Handler to create a new ideal for growing girls – to allow little girls the fantasy of having a job, their own apartment, their own nice clothes, to not just be a wife and mother, was indeed a heroic act – an act of social change. And excellent business sense. She had convinced Elliot of the value of Barbie. A patent was obtained by Mattel in 1958 for Barbie. A Japanese manufacturing company Kokuasai Boiki Kaisha were awarded the bid to create the doll by use of liquid vinyl being injected into molds. The Handlers went with the Japanese company due to cost, Barbie would have been too expensive to manufacture in the United States. Charlotte Johnson met with Japanese clothing manufacturers to create the stream lined process required to make Barbie’s clothes. It took bravery, on the Ruth and Elliot’s part, to undertake this business venture that had no assurance of success.
Mattel went on to launch Barbie for public sale during the American International Toy Fair on March 9th 1959 – Barbie’s official company birthday. For the record, Barbie’s official name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. The reception by large Toy Buyers was tepid at first, until the orders from the public began pouring in during 1960. Mattel then debuted Barbaie’s beau Ken Carson in 1961. Within the first 10 years, Mattel sold over 500 Million dollars worth of Barbie products. Sometimes Mother does indeed Know Best.
Helvetica Maine is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. She can be reached at Content and Solutions.