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Ruth Handler and Barbie

Barbie, Ruth Handler, Mattel, 1961

1961. Ruth Handler, executive of Mattel Toy Company, poses with Barbie Dolls. Photo from L.A. Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library.

In 1945, Elliot Handler and business partner, Harold "Matt" Matson, founded a small picture frame manufacturing company in El Segundo. The company was named "Mattel," combining "Matt" and "Elliot." With lots of scrap left over from making frames, they added dollhouse furniture to their product line. They found these to be more profitable. This led Mattel into toy manufacturing.

Meanwhile, Ruth Handler, Elliot's wife and a company executive in Mattel, noticed that daughter Barbara played with two-dimensional paper dress-up dolls, pretending that they were adults. Ruth thought that girls might actually like to play with a three-dimensional dress-up adult doll. Yet her idea for a doll went further and broke from the common idea, until then, that dolls should only be a child or a mother or a housewife. Handler believed that girls also might want to play with dolls that were working women - working women such as Handler herself. Such a doll, however, would naturally have to feature all the curves of a young adult female, something that her husband and his partner thought might be unacceptable to parents of little girls.

Later, while vacationing in Germany, Ruth Handler came across a "Bild-Lilli" doll - a curvy adult female doll, based upon a comic character in the German tabloid Bild. The doll was actually meant to be an adult gag gift. The German doll, however, resembled Handler's vision for her own new doll. She took a "Bild-Lilli" doll home for inspiration, then continued to develop her adult doll concept for girls. The finished product became "Barbie," named after daughter Barbara, and the new doll was introduced at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959.

The new Barbie doll was not an immediate success. Toy buyers were unimpressed. A major advertising agency said the toy had little chance of success. However, Mattel, driven by Ruth Handler's passion, pushed forward and began heavily advertising Barbie in children's television programing. Mattel had earlier success with television advertising and Handler promoted the idea that toy commercials should speak directly to children rather than just to parents. The Barbie television campaign was a success and the doll's popularity exploded. A few years later, Mattel introduced "Ken," a counterpart male doll, named after the Handler's son, Kenneth. More than a billion Barbie dolls are estimated to have been sold in more than 150 counties.

Also see: The real story of the Barbie doll: strong female leadership behind the scenes.

L.A. Video: Barbie's First Television Commercial, 1959

Barbie Doll, Television Commerical, Mattel, 1959
One of the most iconic toys in the world, it was television advertising that first brought Barbie to the attention of girls.