Barbie® Inventor Ruth Handler. The Most Successful Toy in Toy Industry History.
Handler created a controversial icon with which young girls the world over could identify. She also created breast prostheses for cancer survivors.
Mattel, Inc. was named for its two founders, Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler by using the letters of their first names. Ruth was Handler’s wife, the daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants Jacob and Ida Moskowicz.
The Mattel Toy Company
Mattel actually began as a picture frame manufacturing company using a garage as a workshop. Scraps of wood left over from making picture frames were made into doll house furniture. The doll house furniture turned out to be a bigger seller than the picture frames and Mattel’s owners decided to focus on making toys. A toy ukulele, a “Uka-a-doodle,” was the first toy officially manufactured by Mattel, Inc.
But Ruth Handler was about to change all that.
During the fifties, girls, especially those approaching pre-adolescence, didn’t have many options where dolls were concerned. They were limited to playing with baby dolls or dolls cut out of paper or cardboard.
Handler’s daughter, Barbara, was becoming a pre-teen and playing with baby dolls were behind her. Handler happened to observe her daughter playing with paper dolls and attributing to them adult characteristics.
While visiting Europe, Handler spotted a German Bild Lilli doll in a Swiss shop. Unaware of the adult connotations of the toy, she purchased a few to bring home to the states. The Lilli doll was based on a comic strip with quips considered a bit risqué for children. Much like Barbie, Lilli had breasts but Lilli’s features, such as earrings and shoes, were molded onto the doll.
Handler wanted to create a plastic doll similar to Lilli® but something which gave young girls more options. Her husband and Matson weren’t impressed with the idea, believing that it wouldn’t sell.
Barbie® is Born
Despite their misgivings (or perhaps in spite of), Handler created a doll similar to Lilli. She was molded with breasts, but bare feet and ears left room for imagination in the doll’s wardrobe when earrings and shoes could be added. Handler named the doll Barbie after her daughter.
Barbie debuted at the New York toy fair on March 9, 1959 wearing a zebra-striped maillot, tall stiletto heels and an award-winning pearl-white smile.
Barbie was an instant success and she skyrocketed Mattel, Inc. into a successful toy business. In a move which would bring the company even further success, ads for Mattel toys appeared on the new “Mickey Mouse Club” show. It was the first time a toy company had advertised all year long.
Now that Barbie was flying off the shelves, Mattel was free to diversify its toy line. Mattel produced Chatty Cathy (with the voice talent of June Foray), Hot Wheels, the “Mouseguitar” and See ’n’ Say to name a few. Mattson sold his share of the company to the Handlers and Ruth Handler was made president of Mattel in 1967.
Barbie may have been popular with the pre-teen set, but not everyone was a Barbie fan. It was pointed out that Barbie’s physique was not possible for any healthy woman. Had the doll be five feet six inches tall, her measurements would be 39-21-33. There were also arguments that the doll created unrealistic expectations for young girls and would, therefore, be a source of low self-esteem. But these criticisms did nothing to hamper sales.
In the seventies, Mattel did a little rework of the doll. They toned down her measurements and began including career outfits such as doctor, astronaut, veterinarian and other emerging career choices for women at that time. Barbie’s wardrobe has consistently kept up with the times, once sporting a Jacqueline Kennedy hairdo. She has also been joined by other dolls such as steady boyfriend Ken (named after Handler’s son) and a long line of family and friends.
In her 1994 biography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story Handler wrote: ‘My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.’
Over one billion Barbie® dolls have sold around the world, making her the most successful toy in toy industry history. During a celebration of the Bicentennial in 1976, a Barbie doll was included in America’s Time Capsule.
Trouble with the Securities Exchange Commission
In the seventies, Mattel experienced financial losses when stocks fell leading to shareholder lawsuits and an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Accounting irregularities were found and the Handlers were accused of falsifying documents. In the face of these accusations, the Handlers resigned from the Mattel company in 1975.
Handler pled no contest but Handler was indicted in 1978 for mail fraud and false reporting. Because of her no contest plea, she was fined and sentenced to community service.
Handler Diagnosed with Breast Cancer
Handler underwent a radical mastectomy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970. Trying to find a prosthetic breast which fit properly proved to be a challenge: it seemed that every breast prosthesis was made to be used interchangeably and this was not always comfortable. So Handler decided to make her own. At the age of fifty-four, Handler started a second career. She and Peyton Massey formed Ruthton Corp. which manufactured “Nearly Me” a breast prosthetic which was a more realistic version of a woman’s breast.
Handler was known to quip about her two careers: “I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.”
Handler was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1997.
Handler died April 27, 2002 at the age of 85.