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A History of Barbie

Updated on May 5, 2012

The Birth of Barbie

Mattel's Barbie is far and way the most successful doll ever produced in the US and she has had a long and chequered history since her inception in 1959. Her voluptous looks are recognized all over the world....she has been lauded as a role model, reviled as a sexist creation, been through several physical transformations, had a multitude of 'careers', stuck with the same boyfriend (at least in name),become a collectors item, been the butt of jokes, had songs written about her and has been transported all over the globe. Through it all she has survived and has now earned a legendary status in the toy hall of fame.

Fashion dolls had been around long before Barbie made an appearance, but usually in a child-like form and not as a grown woman.In the 1950s, when Barbie was born, families had more disposable income and there was a boom in toy manufacturing. It was also the era when the concept of the teenager was gaining ground. Prior to WWI girls went from to childhood to womenhood without any specifically labelled in-between period. The new social grouping of the teenager was proving to be a profitable marketing concept and hard plastic and vinyl fashion dolls were being produced en masse by companies such as Ideal, Vogue and Madame Alexander.

An early Barbie Doll
An early Barbie Doll

Bild Lili Doll

There are some obvious similarities to Barbie
There are some obvious similarities to Barbie

Ruth and Eliot Handler

As the story goes, Mattel toy manufacturers Ruth and Eliot Handler and their children Barbie and Ken went on a European holiday, during which time, by chance, they came across an adult fashion doll in a toy shop window in Switzerland. At the time there was a sexualised cartoon strip in Germany called Bild and the doll in the window.. Lili, was based on the main character.

The doll inspired Ruth Handler to create an American version complete with her own extensive wardrobe...and thus The Barbie Doll was born, named  after her own daughter.

Barbie first appeared at the New York City Toy Fair in 1959 and was not an immediate success. Early orders were low but the dissapointment was soon to turn to jubilation as, once out in the shops, the 11and 1/2 inch "Teenage Fashion Doll" became a sensation; around 351,000 were sold in the first year.

1959-The first Barbie Doll, complete with accessories
1959-The first Barbie Doll, complete with accessories
1963-fresh and crisp in a sundress
1963-fresh and crisp in a sundress
Between '61 and 67 Bubble Cut Barbie
Between '61 and 67 Bubble Cut Barbie
Smart city girl outfit
Smart city girl outfit
Original Barbie reproduction doll
Original Barbie reproduction doll

Barbie Transformations

Part of the success of Barbie is her ability to change with the times...preventing her from becoming dated and stale. In her first two years of manufacture alone, there were five different versions of the doll on the market.

The original Barbie is, of course, now highly collectable and indeed every time a new doll emerges there are always collectors ready to snap her up.

Part of the original and very successful concept Ruth Handler had for Barbie was that she have a wide range of clothes and accessories so that children could invest the doll with whatever personality they wished. Thus Barbie could be a college girl, a starlet, a model, a career girl etc.

As Barbie developed into the 1960s Mattel toned down the heavily made up look and introduced a more natural persona. She now could have a bubble cut, less eyeliner and a choice of blonde, black, brown or titian(red) hair.In the first collection blonde Barbie's outnumbered brunettes by two to one.

Quality Clothes

The quality of Barbie's clothes and accessories was very important to Ruth Handler. She was adamant her wardrobe should be well-made, chic and totally up-to-date and for the first series of Barbie dolls, the designs for her clothes were taken directly from the Paris showrooms. Attention to detail was so great that every item had a black and white woven signature label sewn into it.

Only the best materials were used, such as satin, silk, linen, velvet and real fur...the coats were lined and there were workable zippers and buttons and to compliment the outfits Barbie had micro scaled jewellery, hats, gloves and bags.

Some of her outfits from this period included Wedding Day Dress, Gay Parisienne and Dixie Plantation outfit.

Barbie cases
Barbie cases
Reproduction vintage case
Reproduction vintage case

Barbie Merchandising

Mattel didn't confine themselves just to the dolls clothes and Barbie's popularity grew her name and image were transposed onto numerous products, such as cases, lunchboxes, cards and colouring books. As the decade wore on Barbie aquired a dream house, a fashion shop, a car and various other sundry items.

Original Ken doll
Original Ken doll
Midge doll
Midge doll
Skipper doll
Skipper doll

Barbie's Friends and Relatives

As Barbie continued to grow in popularity Mattel took the opportunity to introduce the buying public to an evergrowing circle of Barbie's friends and family. Barbie's boyfriend Ken, named after the Handler's son, was introduced in 1961, with fuzzy hair at first that came off in water and so was later replaced with painted on brown and blonde pigment. He was 12 inches tall, a half-inch taller than Barbie and wore red bathing trunks, cork sandals and came with a yellow towel.

Naturally after Ken made an appearance, Barbie needed a girfriend to confide in and so Midge came on the scene in 1963. She had blue eyes, freckles and contemporary up-flicked hair and wore a two-pieced jersey bathing suit that came in whatever colour matched her particular hair...blonde (blue), brunette (red and pink) or titian(lime and orange).Midge had no separate wardrobe of her own but Barbie had plenty of clothes to go around. Midge got her own boyfriend Allan, in 1964.

Barbie's little sister Skipper, also appeared in 1964 and came with a sailor inspired red and white bathing suit and a brass headband. Skipper was 9 1/4 inches tall and had her own wardrobe, some of which co-ordinated with Barbie's. She also acquired two new friends of her own...Scooter and Ricky.

In 1966 twins Tutti and Todd, Barbie's even smaller brother and sister, came on the market. They were a cute 6 and 1/2 inches and had fully posable rubber bodies.

The same year Barbie's mod cousin Francie also arrived. She was less shapely than Barbie but could wear all the sixties Twiggy-like mod fashions and had upward flick hair in blonde or brown.

The following year Mattel introduced an African American Francie with dark brown hair and eyes and she is now the most sought after doll of the era by collectors.

Reproducton Barbie and Skipper
Reproducton Barbie and Skipper
Barbie and Ken reproduction poster
Barbie and Ken reproduction poster
Reproduction Barbie and Ken
Reproduction Barbie and Ken

Barbie Themes

Throughout the years Barbie has transitioned through several themes...either through different careers, such as astronaut, teacher, nurse etc or as iconic characters such as Dorothy from the wizard of OZ, Scarlett O'hara, various Princesses and TV characters and many more incarnations, too numerous to mention.

Barbie is also a multi-cultural doll of the world and has appeared in Asian, African, Hispanic, Indian, Mexican, Scandinavian, German and English forms...and more. Her wardrobe has changed and developed with every real life fashion trend and she has been clothed in various National dress costumes.

Along with her constantly changing image, she has also had many physical themes...posable, twistable, bendable, twirlable. In keeping with the original idea by Ruth Handler, children choose the Barbie whose personality they most desire and despite the criticism over the years, she is still a toy to stimulate imagination and role-play.

A Continuing Phemonenum

The 11 and a half inch well-built Barbie is still a favourite among children. Barbie and her friends have never really left the retail toyshelf and...old and new, she is collected by thousands of people from all over the world. She really is a phemonenal toy and not likely to dissappear any time soon.

Ken and Barbie
Ken and Barbie


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