Barbie's  50th Birthday


Barbie does have a mother and father: on March 9, 1959 Ruth and Elliot Handler became the spiritual parents of a 3rd and last child and named her Barbie.


They already had two children, Barbara and Kenneth, when Ruth Handler noticed that Barbara, who was in her pre-teens, was playing with children's dolls, but gave them an adult role. That gave her the idea to produce a doll with an adult body and there was one person, with whom she could share this idea....her husband. Together with a partner, Harold "Matt" Matson, her husband Elliot had founded a company in 1945, which they called Mattel Inc. (a combination of both their first names Matt-el). The company started by producing picture frames, but later used the scraps from their production to make dollhouse furniture. As this proved to be more profitable, they decided to concentrate on the production of toys. Unfortunately Elliot and Matt didn't see any commercial value in an adult doll at that time. Matson sold his part in the company to Elliot in 1946.

Of course there's no way to check this pre-conception story. It could just as easily be a later fabricated sales story. Fact is that the actual conception didn't start until after the Handlers had made a European trip in 1956 and Ruth returned home with a Bild Lilli doll, that she had bought in Germany.

This Bild Lilli doll was based upon the cartoon character Lilli, which was drawn by Reinhard Beuthien for the Bild Zeitung (newspaper) since 1952. Lilli was post-war, sassy and ambitious and had no reservations talking about sex. In 1953 Bild Zeitung decided to produce a Lilli doll and based upon Beuthien's drawings Max Weissbrodt from the O&M Hausser toy company created a curvy adult doll with a blond ponytail. The doll was in production from 1955 - 1964. Originally the doll was sold in bars and tobacco shops to adults as a joke or gag gift, but gradually the doll was discovered by children too, although Lilli didn't come cheap. Soon the German toy industry started cashing in on her success and produced dollhouses, furniture and other toy accessories. Lilli came as a dressed doll, with additional fashions sold separately. Her fashions mirror the lifestyle of the 1950's: she had outfits for parties, the beach and tennis as well as cotton dresses, pajamas and poplin suits.

After their return the conception began. Ruth started redesigning the doll with the help of engineer Jack Ryan. The original Lilli doll held three patents, so they had to work around them. The doll was patented in December 1958, but Ruth didn't give birth to her doll until March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair in New York. The doll was named Barbie, after her daughter Barbara, and marketed as "teen-age fashion model". The first Barbie wore a black and white striped swimsuit, but fashion designer Charlotte Johnson created a full and fashionable wardrobe for her.



Mattel Inc. did a great job in marketing and soon a whole range of Barbie accessories was created. Besides a superfluous wardrobe, Barbie has had over forty pets, including cats, dogs, horses, a panda, a lion cub, and a zebra. She has owned a wide range of vehicles, including pink Corvette convertibles, trailers and jeeps. She also holds a pilot's license, and operates commercial airliners in addition to serving as a flight attendant. And Mattel Inc. even created a biography for her:

Biography of Barbie

Full Name: Barbara Millicent Roberts.
Parents: George & Margaret Roberts.
Hometown: (fictional town of) Willows, Wisconsin.
School: (fictional) Willows High School and Manhattan International High School in New York City.
Boyfriend: Ken Carson, 1961-1967, 1969-2004, 2006-?

Careers: Miss Astronaut Barbie (1965), Doctor Barbie (1988) and Nascar Barbie (1998).
Friends: range of 72 companions, including Hispanic Teresa and  African American Christie and Steven (Christie's boyfriend).

Including family, siblings, friends and family friends 153 different characters (thus dolls) in total were created during the last 50 years. However, Barbie's official parents George and Margaret were never made available as dolls. The characters were introduced in a series of novels published by Random House in the 1960's, in which Barbie's youth is described and which partly made up her biography too. Of course all this was part of the marketing strategy of the Mattel company. The same marketing strategy made Mattel Inc. take over the company that produced the original Lilli dolls in 1964. Their production stopped immediately. 

So it's not a surprise that Barbie became Mattel's best seller. Still, when you're 50 years old, it's not a surprise either that you've caused some controversies along the line as well......

The most important criticism was that her body wasn't a good role model for the teenagers that played with her. She was made on a 1/6th scale and in real life her measures would be 36-18-33 (inches), which is calculated to be about 20 % short in body fat required to menstruate. In other words, Barbie would create anorexic teens. This idea was enhanced by the Slumber Party Barbie from 1965, which came with a "How to loose Weight" book, which advised "Don't eat", and a bathroom scale that read 110 lb which is about 35 lb less than a girl of her height should weigh. In 1997 Mattel remolded the doll and Barbie was given a wider waist.
Another controversial doll was the African American "Colored Francie", which was first published in 1967. The doll had a dark skin, but used the existing head molds, so she lacked all the African American facial features. This was set straight and in 1968 "Christie" made her debut, usually regarded as the first African American doll in the Barbie range.

But there's no doubt that Barbie has been the favorite doll of a lot of young girls. For generations girls could create their own fantasy world around her. But she became more. Some call her a cultural icon. And when Andy Warhol makes a painting of her in 1985, it can be seen as a recognition of that status. Nevertheless there was opposition too. The name "Barbie" is used in slang for a girl that's considered shallow. 

Still, we think that she deserves a little more credit. Although she has turned 50 now, she has always kept her young looks. As we all know how expensive that can be, we can only respectfully say...........HAPPY  BIRTHDAY BARBIE!



(Lilli picture and text based on information from Wikipedia.)