mattel barbie

Barbie: History of a Living Doll

Author: Sherril Steele-Carlin

Did you know the original Barbie was named for a real young lady from California named Barbara Handler? It's true! Barbie, the teen fashion doll that debuted in 1959 was created by Barbara's mom, Ruth Handler, who named the doll after her daughter and the rest is doll history. 

It all started in the late 1950s, when Ruth Handler noticed that her young daughter, Barbara, and her friends really liked to play with adult dolls rather than the common baby dolls that were common at the time. These adult dolls weren't three-dimensional, they were all made out of cardboard or paper, so Ruth began to design a three-dimensional adult doll that would make her daughter and her friends happy. 

Handler and her husband Elliot had created the Mattel Toy Company in their garage, but by the late 50s it had grown to include a group of ad executives who quickly vetoed Ruth's initial idea and design. They thought the doll would be too expensive to produce and had little long-term appeal. Now we know how wrong they were! 

Undaunted, Ruth continued with her idea. She traveled to Europe and when she returned she brought a German doll named "Lilli" with her. Redesigned, Lilli became Barbie, and Ruth continued to pester the Mattel executives until they agreed to produce the doll. The original patent date is 1958. Ruth even hired a fashion designer, Charlotte Johnson, to create a fashionable wardrobe for the doll.  

Barbie, with her distinctive blonde ponytail and black and white striped stretch bathing suit made her debut at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City, and took the toy world by storm. The dolls literally flew off the shelves. Mattel set a toy selling record the first year Barbie debuted, selling 351, 000 dolls the first year. In ten short years, parents would spend $500 million on Barbie products for their clamoring youngsters.  

Barbie was the first fashion doll, and she spawned many spin-offs, but she and her "family" of dolls are simply the most popular in history. Barbie gets at least 100 new clothing designs every year, and because they produce so many Barbie outfits each year, Mattel has become the biggest garment manufacturer in the world. 

Today, Barbie has come a long way from that fashion doll who debuted in 1959. She has sisters, a boyfriend, and represents nearly 100 different nationalities. However, collectors prize the original Barbie and her 50s wardrobe above all else. Barbie and her clothing are one of the most popular collectibles in the world today, and a mint-condition original Barbie can sell as high as $10,000. So, check the attic, the basement, and the storage boxes for your old Barbie treasures. They could be more valuable than you think, and even if they aren't, they'll bring back lots of fond fashion memories! 

Some Barbie Trivia:

  • The first Barbie cost $3.
  • Today, more than 1 billion Barbie's have been sold
  • The Ken doll was named for Ruth and Elliot Handler's son
  • At first, Barbie was a teenaged fashion model, but she's had over 80 careers since then, from astronaut to a medic in Desert Storm.
  • Barbie's full name is "Barbie Millicent Roberts."
  • Barbie didn't have a belly button until 2000.
  • Two Barbies are sold every second around the world.
  • There's an official Barbie collectors site at:
A whole series of vintage Barbie photos

Sherril Steele-Carlin is a freelance writer and researcher in Reno, Nevada. Her work has appeared in numerous national publications including American Profile, Highways, Pool & Spa, and many more.



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