Historical Background



 1950’s Kitchen [1]

The decade in which the Barbie doll was conceived was a time when the United States was attempting to establish a sense of normalcy after World War II. Women were returning to their homes as 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. Scholar, Nigel Whiteley in “Toward a Throw-Away Culture. Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s” links the growth in spending to a growth in disposability and obsolescence. Starting in the 1920s but reaching an apogee in the 1950s, manufacturers were producing goods with “eye appeal” such as sexier cars, refrigerators, and appliances[2]. American adults were becoming absorbed in the culture of fashion enabled through technological progress [3]. They were obsessed with ‘fashionable’ technology which move them toward the economic and cultural good, implying that technological complacency is bad. However, the pressure to stay current and keep up with your peers creates what Whiteley calls the ‘style obsolescence’ meaning society had become so comfortable with the expendability of objects that obsolescence became fashionable and commonplace.

The style of obsolescence did not just infect adults with the desire for excessive consumerism but children as well. In “Children and Advertising” scholar, William O’Barr explores the evolution of television and advertising effects on children. In the late 1940’s, television shows aired which were just for kids such as the Mickey Mouse Club and the Hot Dog Party. Companies, particularly toy companies, developed the idea of marketing to the children themselves noting the growing influence children had on their parent’s purchases. By the 1950’s, commercials specifically targeted children in the middle time slots of child-friendly programs, selling not only toys, but selling the idea of gender roles. Barbie, for example, taught girls what it meant to be feminine, pushing characteristics such as affluence, heterosexuality, and beauty.[4] Mattel, producer of Barbie and Hot Wheels, is the prime example of marketing to children while constructing identities and norms of the child culture. By linking Barbie to the definition of being a girl, Mattel made Barbie a cultural necessity. The consumer culture and innovation of marketing strategies during the 1950s and 1960s are essential to the understanding of the creation, culture, and success of Barbie.

[1] Retro Innovation, “Vintage Virden Lighting- 52 Page Catalog from 1959.” Photograph. 2013.http://retrorenovation.com/2013/01/30/vintage-virden-lighting-52-page-catalog-from-1959/. (Accessed April 22,2013).

[2] Nigel Whiteley, “Toward a Throw-Away Culture: Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory In the 1950s and 1960s.” The Oxford Art Journal 10, no.2 (1987):3.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/1360444. (Accessed March 1, 2013).

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] William O’Barr, “Children and Advertising” Advertising & Society Review 9, no. 4 (2008):section 3. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/advertising_and_society_review/v009/9.4.o-barr01.html. (Accessed March 1, 2013).

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