The Barbie Doll

In 1959, Ruth Handler invented something that became so quintessentially American as to be included in the official "America's Time Capsule," buried at the celebration of the Bicentennial in 1976: the Barbie doll.

In the early 1950s, Handler saw that her young daughter, Barbara, and her girlfriends enjoyed playing with adult female dolls as much or more than with baby dolls. Handler sensed that it was just as important for girls to imagine what they themselves might grow up to become as it was for them to focus on what caring for children might be like.

All of the adult dolls that were currently available on the market were made out of paper or cardboard, so Handler decided to create a three-dimensional adult female doll.  A doll that was lifelike enough to serve as an inspiration for her daughter's dreams of her future. Handler took her idea to the ad executives at Mattel Corp., the company that she and her husband, Elliot, had founded in their garage some years before. The all-male committee rejected the idea, saying it was too expensive and had little potential for wide market appeal.

Soon thereafter, Handler returned from a trip to Europe with a "Lilli" doll, which was modeled after a character in a German comic strip. Handler spent some time designing a doll that was similar to Lilli and even hired a designer to make realistic doll clothes. The result was the Barbie doll (named in honor of the Handlers' daughter), a pint-sized model of the "girl next door."

Mattel finally agreed to back Handler's efforts, and the Barbie doll debuted at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. Girls clamored for the doll, and Barbie set a new sales record for Mattel its first year on the market (351,000 dolls were sold at $3 each). Since then, Barbie's popularity has rarely flagged. Today, with over one billion dolls sold, the Barbie product line is the most successful product line in the history of the toy industry.

Barbie has faced criticism from the beginning. The major accusation, from feminists and others, has been that she reinforces sexism, representing a young woman with questionable intelligence and a near-impossible physique. The late 1960s even saw the creation of the "Barbie Liberation Organization," after Mattel introduced "Ken" (named after the Handlers' son) as Barbie's "handsome steady." Despite such criticisms, playing with Barbie dolls seems to enhance girls' self-image and expand their sense of their potential. This has become more true over the years, as Barbie herself has expanded her horizons. She has now appeared as a doctor, astronaut, businesswoman, police officer, UNICEF volunteer, and athlete.

Ruth Handler undeniably invented an American icon that functions as both a steady cynosure for girls' dreams and an ever-changing reflection of American society. This can be seen in the history of Barbie's clothes, in her various "face lifts" that suit the times, in her professional, political, and charitable endeavors, and more recently, in the multi-culturalizing of her product line. There is little doubt that Barbie will accompany America into the new millennium.