Barbie History – A History of the 1950s Barbie Doll

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Once you start getting into collecting Barbie dolls you usually find yourself wanting to know a little bit of the history of Barbie, especially if you are interested in the vintage Barbie dolls. What you may not realize is that Barbie is named after a real little girl, and for that matter, so is Ken.

Barbara Handler is the daughter of Barbie’s inventor, Ruth Handler. Ruth Handler had noticed that when her daughter played with her paper dolls, she frequently pretended that the dolls were grown-ups. Most dolls available in the early 1950s were baby dolls so Ruth thought that might represent an opportunity for her husband Elliot’s toy company, Mattel.

Mattell wasn’t all that interested in the idea, but fortunately Ruth didn’t forget about it herself, so when she came across an interesting doll in Germany on a trip there with her children she bought three of them to take home. This doll was the Bild Lili. She was an adult doll based upon a German comic strip character and she had been popular in Germany since her release in 1955.

Once Ruth returned to America, she started to work on her new doll for Mattel, basing it upon the Bild Lili doll that she brought home with her from Europe (and Mattel ultimately purchased the rights to Bild Lili). A Mattel engineer, Jack Ryan, helped her with the redesign and this design was sent to Japan for manufacture. The new doll, now known as Barbie (for Ruth’s daughter, Barbara) was debuted at the International Toy Fair in New York City in March of 1959 as the “teenage fashion doll”.

This first Barbie is known in collector’s circles as the #1 Ponytail Barbie doll and she wore a B&W zebra stripe swimsuit and her blonde or brunette hair was tied back in a ponytail. She also came with a pair of sunglasses and wore high heel shoes and gold hoop earrings. Designed to be played with, Barbie had movable limbs and she could turn her head as well. She also had a variety of outfits that could be bought to dress her up and, of course, accessories.

With the help of her appearance on the Mickey Mouse Club and a heavy television advertising campaign, over 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during her first year of production. More than 40 years later, Barbie continues to fascinate even as she changes to reflect the times.