TODAY in HISTORY: The Barbie Doll

Fifty-eight years ago today, on March 9, 1959, the Barbie doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York. –

by William “Doc” Halliday 

My parents had two children.  My sister and I are half Polish through our maternal ancestors. When my sister, who is nearly four years older, was young she played with dolls.  Those dolls were representations of infants although my sister and her friends would sometimes give them adult roles.  No, I did not play with dolls.  I did however watch the M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e Club which first aired in October of 1955.  I spell that out for those like myself who remember singing along. 

Another person with Polish roots, whose connection to an iconic piece of work which would become famous, was Ruth Marianna Mosko, born in Denver in 1915. She married Elliot Handler in 1938. 

The year of their marriage, was the same year that Mr. Handler started making items from Lucite, a type of plastic.  He made lamps, picture frames, hand mirrors, and candelabra.  They were very good, and Ruth was convinced she could sell them.  They named the company Elliot Handler Plastics.  In May of 1939 they made their first sale for a wholesale price of $500 worth of merchandise.  Soon they had another order for $1,500 from Douglas Aircraft for clocks with a Plexiglas face. 

In 1940, Elliot came up with a design of a woman’s miniature hand with small graceful fingers holding a small vial.  The idea was to fill the vial with water, put a flower in it, and pin it to your lapel. It was an instant success.  In 1941, Zachary Zemby formed a partnership with Elliot to design and sell jewelry.  Using a naming pattern that would be utilized again, they named the company Elzac Jewelry.  Later that year, Ruth gave birth to their first child, Barbara.  As World War Two progressed, sales of Elzac Jewelry flourished.  Susan Hayward and other stars wore the jewelry and helped to promote it. 

In 1944, Elliot and Harold “Matt” Matson formed a new company called Mattel.  The first Mattel products were picture frames.  Then Elliot began to make doll-house furniture made from the scraps of picture frames.  Despite a long-term relationship with Elliot (he had been involved in the prior business), Harold Matson sold his interest back to Elliot in 1945.  Based upon the success of the doll-house furniture, the Handlers concentrated their efforts on toys.  In 1947 Mattel introduce the Uke-A-Doodle.  This was the first in a line of musical toys. 

In 1955 Mattel introduced the Burp Gun.  This was an automatic cap gun with a patented mechanism.  The toy became a phenomenal success due to advertising on the Mickey Mouse Club show.  In 1958, while the Handler family was on vacation in Europe, Ruth Handler saw the Bild Lilli doll that was manufactured in Germany.  This doll was not a children’s toy, but rather an adult gag gift.  Ruth purchased three of the dolls in a Swiss shop and brought them home.  She gave one of the dolls to her daughter, and brought the other two to Mattel.  Ruth revised the doll and pushed to manufacture it.  Her husband and the Board of Directors were initially against the idea, but later came around. 

Fifty-eight years ago today, on March 9, 1959, the Barbie doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York.  The first Barbie doll wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and what became a signature topknot ponytail.  The doll was available as either a blonde or a brunette only.  Barbie was marketed as a “Teen-age Fashion Model,” with her clothes created by Charlotte Johnson, a Mattel fashion designer. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan. 

There were and are many critics of the doll.  Some say that Barbie is an unrealistic representation of women.  They point out that her waist is impossibly small for a woman. Her measurements convert into an adult woman with an 18-inch waist and a 36-inch bust. The Barbie doll is scarcely less than 12 inches tall. 

In March of 1961, Mattel was sued by Louis Marx and Co.  They claimed that Mattel had infringed on the patent for Bild-Lilli’s hip joint, and alleged that Barbie was “a direct take-off and copy” of Bild-Lilli. They further claimed that Mattel “falsely and misleadingly represented itself as having originated the design.” The case was settled out of court in 1963.

William “Doc” Halliday, historian and political commentator can be reached at .


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