Saturday, December 24, 2022

The History of Barbie Dolls

By Terrie Todd

Barbara Millicent Roberts was born March 9, 1959, two weeks after me. Though she appeared about eighteen years my senior at the time, she has somehow managed to maintain her youthfulness and still doesn’t look a day over 23.

Plastic will do that. 

The original 1959 Barbie

Prior to Barbie’s debut, most dolls represented babies—designed for children to cuddle and care for like real infants. Married to the co-founder of the Mattel Toy company, Ruth Handler probably kept a lookout for new toy ideas. When she noticed her daughter, Barbara, assigning her paper dolls adult roles, it sparked the idea for a teenage fashion doll. The concept did not impress Mr. Handler or his board.

His wife persisted. Mattel introduced the first Barbie doll, named for the Handlers’ daughter, at the 1959 American International Toy Fair in NYC. The first year, Mattel sold 350,000 of the 11.5-inch dolls. 

That's a pretty sophisticated teenager!

By the time I became interested in Barbie, her empire had exploded. Alas, I never actually owned one. I’m not sure whether my parents didn’t buy into the hype or if they took issue with Barbie’s impossible body shape, but they chose to give me a “Tammy” doll instead—12 inches tall and shaped more like an average teenager. I didn’t mind until I realized Tammy couldn’t fit any of Barbie’s clothes. Her flat feet called for nothing but simple rubber sneakers. Though my mother sewed some brilliant outfits for Tammy, I still craved a “real” Barbie of my own. (Ungrateful little snot!)

Over the years, more friends joined Barbie, including her boyfriend, Ken (named for the Handlers’ son), her best friend, Midge, and little sister, Skipper. One could purchase every conceivable outfit and accessory, as well as homes, cars, boats, and more for the popular doll. 

Barbie's little sister, Skipper
Did freckles make Midge less attractive than Barbie? She should know girls are now drawing on freckles where none appear.
Good ol' Ken. The perfect boyfriend.

In her 63-year existence, Barbie has managed over 150 careers. As an astronaut, she reached the moon in 1965, four years ahead of Neil Armstrong. She’s run for U.S. president numerous times. Although she’s clearly never won, I wonder how many ballots she’s spoiled as a write-in candidate? She’s even been a mermaid.

Her original body shape became the topic of much criticism when someone calculated that a similarly proportioned human woman would stand five feet, nine inches tall and be severely underweight. (In 1965, Barbie came with a fuzzy pink bathroom scale permanently set to 110 pounds.) Concurring that Barbie’s shape might contribute to an unhealthy body image in children, Mattel increased her waist size in 1997.

Barbie continued to evolve with the times, fashions, and political correctness. In 2014 she made the cover of Sports Illustrated in her original black and white swimsuit. Meanwhile, her friend “Ella” underwent cancer treatments as Mattel distributed bald dolls to hospitals in limited numbers.

Mattel reinvented Barbie again in 2016, responding to public pressure that she did not reflect diversity of modern women. Barbie now comes in 22 skin tones, 94 hair colors, 13 eye colors and five body types. I suspect this move profited Mattel, given all the new sizes of clothing needed to go with the various dolls. Still, good for them.

Barbie has appeared in books, films, and video games. She has her own TV show, You Tube channel, and vlog. Streets have been named for her, painters and photographers have captured her, the wealthy have collected her. If you’re ever in Taiwan, you can even visit a Barbie CafĂ©.

A quick look at Amazon tells me you can order a doll for as little as five Canadian dollars, or for up to sixty for this years’ “Holiday Barbie” in all her sparkly glory.

As for me, I’ll thank God for the four or five “careers” I’ve learned, my closet filled with previously owned clothing, and a 1959 body that still mostly works.

“Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised.” Proverbs 31:30

Terrie Todd is the award-winning author of four historical and two split-time novels. Rose Among Thornes won the 2022 Word Award for best cover and the Debra Fieguth Social Justice award. The Last Piece won The Word Guild’s best contemporary novel award. Terrie lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children. They are grandparents to five boys.


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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today, and Merry Christmas! I enjoyed learning about Barbie; what an empire has been created around her! I don't remember if I ever had a Barbie, I did have a "Tammy" doll.