Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Happy Birthday Barbie!

Let’s take a ride. Hop in the Wayback Machine, buckle up and hang on. We’re heading back to the fifties again. (How surprising is that?) Our first stop is going to be in Europe, so now we can all say we’ve been there.

It’s 1956 and a young woman named Ruth Handler is visiting Germany with her children Barbara and Kenneth. (Are you guessing where this is headed?)
But let’s back up a bit. Before this trip, Ruth had often watched her daughter, Barbara, as she played with her paper dolls, often giving them adult rolls.

It's important to note that at the time, most children's toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel's directors.

But during that trip to Europe in 1956, Ruth Handler came across a German toy doll called Bild Lilli. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to adults, it became popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.

The adult-figured Lilli doll was exactly what Handler had in mind, so she purchased three of them. She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel. Upon her return to the United States, Handler reworked the design of the doll (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and the doll was given a new name, Barbie, after Handler's daughter Barbara.

The doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is also used as Barbie's official birthday. Mattel acquired the rights to the Bild Lilli doll in 1964 and production of Lilli was stopped. The first Barbie doll wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and signature topknot ponytail, and was available as either a blonde or brunette.

The doll was marketed as a "Teen-age Fashion Model," with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.

Ruth Handler believed that it was important for Barbie to have an adult appearance, and early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll's chest, which had distinct breasts. Barbie's appearance has been changed many times, most notably in 1971 when the doll's eyes were adjusted to look forward rather than having the demure sideways glance of the original model.

Since it’s introduction, it is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.

After 52 years, Barbie has become a cultural icon and has been given honors that are rare in the toy world. In 1974 a section of Times Square in New York City was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week, while in 1985 the artist Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie.

In case you missed the 50 Year Anniversary Barbie two years ago, she was obviously dealing with midlife and any crises that might have fostered. The manufacturer decided at that time to include a set of mini-tattoos for her. (Does that help a midlife crisis?) In addition, there was a faux tattoo gun for the children to use on themselves. How darling is that? I'm not sure what kind of message that sends, but I don't want to sound judgmental.


love4vintage said...

I stumbled across your blog and I love it! I actually have my own vintage blog, which is of which you might be interested in. I am excited for your new posts!

Michael said...

Thanks for the comment love4vintage. I visited your blog and I enjoyed it as well. I think you have a great idea about coming up with a Lucy Page. There's so much you can add. I don't know if you're aware of it, but you can embed YouTube videos on your blog if you wish to. It's easy. Keep doing what you're doing. I followed you.