In 1959, Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll to help young girls dream about their futures — and changed the American toy industry forever.
Barbie is one of the most recognizable names in the world, and it’s all thanks to a woman named Ruth Handler.
In 1959, when Handler invented Barbie, the doll quickly took the world by storm. Never before had a doll like Barbie been sold on store shelves — busty, blonde, and most importantly, adult. Most girls had simply resigned themselves to playing with baby dolls, while toys marketed to young boys continued to flood the market.
Feminists at the time attacked Barbie for being a symbol of objectification, and others critiqued the doll for providing young girls with unrealistic aspirations.
But Barbie proved to be more than just a toy. Perhaps more than anything else, Barbie showed young girls that they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be; they weren’t confined to the traditional roles that had been laid out before them for so long.
And the woman behind Barbie, Ruth Handler, was likewise inspirational in her time.
How Ruth Handler Helped Make Mattel The World’s Biggest Toy Company
Ruth Handler was born on Nov. 4, 1916, in Denver, Colorado to Russian-Jewish immigrants Jacob and Ida Mosko. In high school, she met a boy named Elliot Handler, and the high school sweethearts eventually married and moved to Los Angeles in 1938.
In California, Elliot Handler started a company with Harold Matson, combining their names into a single word: Mattel. But surprisingly, Mattel didn’t start out as a toy manufacturer. In fact, it had much more humble beginnings: selling wooden picture frames.
But according to Entrepreneur, Elliot Handler didn’t let the picture frame scraps go to waste — he used them to make small pieces of furniture fit for dollhouses.
Despite the success of this doll furniture side business, however, Matson sold his half of the company to Handler, believing the company was doomed to fail. It was then that Ruth Handler joined her husband as co-owner of the business.
It didn’t take long for Mattel to pivot completely from selling picture frames to selling toys.
They enjoyed a fair amount of success, though it paled in comparison to what would eventually come their way. Among their first big sellers was the “Uke-a-doodle,” a toy ukulele that became so popular, they launched an entire line of musical toys for children.
The mid-’50s also proved to be a fortuitous time for the Handlers. In 1955, they secured the rights to produce “Mickey Mouse Club” products, which helped put the Mattel name in more homes across the country — and established the trend of cross-promotional toy marketing industry-wide. That same year, they released the “Burp Gun,” a patented fully automatic toy cap gun.
But Mattel’s most successful invention came in 1959 — and changed the toy market forever.
Inspired By Her Daughter And A Sexy German Novelty Doll, Ruth Handler Invents Barbie
As Ruth Handler was brainstorming new ideas for toys, she noticed her daughter, Barbara, and her friends playing make-believe with paper dolls, using them to play out fantasies of being cheerleaders, college students, and adults with various careers.
Handler wanted to provide children with a toy that let them do the same thing her daughter had done — to dream about the future.
So, Ruth Handler approached Mattel designers with a concept for a new doll, one that was vastly different than practically every other doll on the market. Instead of making yet another cherubic baby doll for young girls to take care of and play the role of mother, this doll would look like an adult woman, curves and all.
The designers were skeptical. Some were even convinced it would be downright impossible to make the doll.
But Handler was adamant. “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” she recalled in an interview with The New York Times. “If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts.”
Then, according to ThoughtCo, while on a family trip to Switzerland, Handler came across a doll called Bild Lilli in a shop, a sexy German adult novelty doll based on a comic strip character who happened to be a high-end call girl. Obviously, Handler couldn’t market Bild Lilli to children, but the doll’s design was exactly what she had been looking for.
Handler bought the doll, returned to America, and showed it to the designers at Mattel. And on March 9, 1959, Mattel introduced their new doll, Barbie, a teenage fashion model, at the Toy Fair in New York. Two years later, they introduced the world to Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken.
“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Handler wrote in her autobiography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
Handler’s Battles With Cancer And Her Legacy Today
By the 1970s, Barbie had already undergone a number of iterations and changes. She’d sported a Jackie Kennedy hairdo and made a Black friend named “Colored Francie” during the Civil Rights Movement. Barbie had also been a doctor, an astronaut, and a veterinarian.
Her creator, meanwhile, had faced criticism from feminist groups that Barbie represented unrealistic ideals for little girls, given that her measurements would have been a nearly impossible 39-21-33 if she were a real woman. Furthermore, in 1978, Handler and other Mattel officers were indicted on charges of fraud and false reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for trying to influence stock prices.
But by then, Handler had moved on to another venture: making prosthetic breasts for breast cancer survivors — a group to which Handler herself belonged. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970, and the end result was the removal of her left breast. It was then that she realized, once again, there was a niche gap in the market for her to fill.
“Until now,” she said, “every [prosthetic] breast that was sold was used interchangeably for the right or the left side. There has never been a shoemaker who made one shoe and forced you to put both your right and left foot in it.”
This gap led Handler to invent “Nearly Me,” a foam and silicon artificial breast in which Handler was so confident, she would often open her blouse during interviews and ask reporters to feel her breasts and guess which one was real. During this time, she also became a strong advocate for the early detection of breast cancer and of breast cancer research.
Unfortunately, 1970 was not Handler’s only battle with cancer. In her 80s, she developed colon cancer, and after undergoing surgery in late 2001 experienced a number of complications that ultimately led to her death on April 27, 2002. She was 85 years old.
And though Handler’s life came to an unfortunate, premature end, her legacy lives on in the form of the doll that started it all: Barbie, who has inspired four generations of women and will likely continue to inspire more.
After learning about the woman behind one of the world’s most famous toys, read about why some dolls were so bad they made it into the Museum of Failure. Or, read about another famous toy — Robert, the haunted doll.