Conception of Barbie

elliot-ruth-handler-MATTEL

  Ruth and Elliot Handler [1]

The story of the invention of Barbie is one of perfect timing and female empowerment. Ruth Handler, a business woman, conceived the notion of an adult doll for young girls after years of observing her daughter playing with baby dolls and, later, paper dolls. She felt there was no doll that allowed young girls to live out their dreams; the baby doll forced the child to take on a maternal role and paper dolls were too fragile and unrealistic[2]. During the 1950’s, a handful of three-dimensional dolls existed but they were “fashion dolls” targeted at adults. They were made out of hard plastic or porcelain and were not easy to play with. On a trip to Europe in 1956, Handler found the design she had dreamt of in the “Bild-Lilli” doll. The Lilli was made of soft plastic and had the adult curves Handler had envisioned. Oddly, the Lilli was marketed as an adult male novelty gift but Handler saw something else in the doll[3]. She brought the Lilli back to the United States and began producing her own version of the doll.

The creation of the Barbie Doll was a perfect storm. The United States was recovering from World War II by establishing a sense of normalcy. Women were returning to their homes and the tasks of being housewives while men took back their place in industry. There was a rise in suburbanization and spending on luxury items such as ovens, cars, and televisions. Although normalcy was being pursued, cultural contention arose with new music, television shows, and fashion trends[4]. There was now a place for young girls to be someone other than a mommy in society. Therefore, there needed to be a doll young girls could use to fantasize about future careers and adventures. The rise of fashion trends allowed Handler to promote her doll as a teenage fashion model instead of a sexy novelty doll.  Furthermore, with the popularity of television, Barbie could be marketed directly to children, bypassing adults’ disapproval of Barbie’s figure and children began to specifically request the doll.

The perfect storm which enabled the immediate success of Barbie was not simply the post-war society but the ready infrastructure of the Mattel toy factory. Mattel, which was owned by Handler’s husband, had recently become one of the top toy companies producing toys like Mr. Potato Head and Lego. Mattel was an innovator in the process of marketing to kids. Mattel originally had reservations concerning Barbie until 1959 when Jack Ryan, a new design chief, helped Handler produce the item[5]. They outsourced the manufacturing of Barbie to Tokyo and began showing Barbie at toy fairs. Barbie was solidified into child culture by the 1960s as she was directly marketed to children, versus the old fashioned way of marketing to department stores. The company sponsored The Mickey Mouse Club, which was one of the first shows targeting youth, and played commercials for their toys during the program[6].  If any toy company could make Barbie popular, it would be Mattel.  Barbie’s continued success can be attributed to Mattel’s ability to conduct market research and adapt Barbie to the trends of the time.

[1] Charles Duhigg, Picture of Elliot and Ruth Handler in “Elliot Handler, Co-Founder of Mattel Toys, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, Originally posted Feb. 7, 1959, Reposted July 22,2011,  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/23/business/elliot-handler-co-founder-of-mattel-toys-dies-at-95.html. (Accessed April 22, 2013).

[2] Tanya Lee Stone, The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us, (New York: Penguin Group, 2010), 24.

[3]Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 25-26.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Ibid., 21.

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