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March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

Posted March 09, 2009 4:14 PM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, Mattel Inc. introduced one of the best-selling toys of all time, the Barbie doll. Made of heavy vinyl with bits of copper tube in her feet, Barbie the Teenage Fashion Model debuted at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959. Fifty years later, Mattel has sold more than 1 billion Barbie dolls worldwide, including 100 million in 2008 alone. Today, over 100 designers work on each new version of a plastic toy that has become a cultural icon.

Bild Lilli

Ruth Handler, a co-founder of Mattel, created the Barbie doll after watching her daughter Barbara play with a toy named Bild Lilli during a trip to Germany in 1956. Unlike the paper dolls and infant or baby dolls that were popular playthings in America, Bild Lilli had an adult figure (and a bawdy reputation). After her return to the United States, Ruth Handler asked a Yale-educated electrical engineer named Jack Ryan to rework the German doll's appearance. Ryan, who had once designed Hawk and Sparrow missiles for Raytheon, now served as head of Mattel's department of research and development.

Years of Prudish Resistance

Initially, Ruth Handler faced stern opposition from both her own husband and Mattel's board of directors. Although she tried to position the adult-bodied doll as a toy that could fill a void in the marketplace, the "male executives at Mattel" offered what the New York Times called "years of prudish resistance". Eventually, however, Ruth Handler prevailed. The youngest of 10 children and the daughter of a Polish-born blacksmith, Ruth Mosko had left Denver at the age of 19 to move to Hollywood, California, home of the American film industry. Now she prepared to debut a famous doll, Barbie, which was named after her own daughter.

Vinyl Nostalgia

Although Ruth Handler would later describe herself as "a marketing genius", there were no guarantees that the toy company she and her husband had co-founded in 1945 had a best-selling item on its hands. At first, only about 350,000 Barbie dolls were produced. The toys sold for $3.00 and featured a hollow vinyl body, metal cylinders in the legs, and symmetrical holes in the feet bottoms to fit a black pedestal stand. Today, Barbie dolls are made mainly of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Ryan_(designer)

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C04E5DB1F3EF93AA15757C0A9649C8B63&pagewanted=2

http://www.dollreference.com/barbie1.html

http://www.mattel.com/our_toys/ot_barb.asp

http://www.blurtit.com/q946948.html

http://www.barbiemedia.com/?subcat=23

The Y Files

Steve Melito

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#1

Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 12:21 AM

I am from plastic it's fatastic.

I used to play with Big Jim dolls (the name now sounds strange to me as an adult).

I guess Barbie was a great tool for keeping the stereotypes up.

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#2

Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 6:53 AM

My wife collects these things, Between her Barbies and My skull collection are house is rather strangely decorated. By the way the collector Barbies are NOT CHEAP.

I have to admit some of the dolls are very impressive. I wouldn't mind seeing a real live Barbie in some of these Costumes.

They Generally start at $150 and go up from there. I've actually taken out an Insurance Rider on her collection.

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#3

Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 8:16 AM

Looks like Mattel is trying to make Barbie a little more current but it's not going over well with parents.

Tattoo Barbie Causes Outrage In US

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#4

Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 9:00 AM

Nice post, Moose!

I used to play with Barbie quite a bit when I was a kid. But, the ratio or Barbies to Kens (boy Barbies) was probably something like 10:1. My brother would sometimes let Barbie date G.I Joe, but the coolest guy was definitely MC Hammer (of all the people to have their own doll!)...all the Barbies wanted to ride in the convertible with him!

Seriously though, I've read a lot of articles the past couple days about Barbie - before I knew it was her birthday, and there is a lot of negativity associated with her. I find the background and stigma against Barbie interesting, but I can't take it too seriously. She was always entertaining for me when I was young.

So, happy birthday Barbie! Oh, and I'm sorry I gave you so many awful haircuts all those years ago

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#5

Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 9:27 AM

I just remembered something else really cool and Barbie related. One of my professors from RPI used to be in a group called the BLO (Barbie Liberation Organization)

They bought hundreds of talking Barbies and talking GI Joes and switched the voiceboxes. Then returned all these dolls to the store with a note inside saying they had a special doll. They included numbers of many local news stations with instructions to report their find.

They made a lot of press from this, here is an article on it from the New York Times.

While Barbie Talks Tough, G. I. Joe Goes Shopping

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#6

Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 11:20 AM

Barbie gets a bad rap from the feminists. She's had over 100 careers and was even an astronaut and a candidate for president. Sounds like the ultimate career woman to me.

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#9
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Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 10:16 PM

What's a doll to do?

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Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 1:40 PM

What about Kewpie Dolls ? They went plastic in '49 according to wiki. I'd also like to wave the flag for 60's Sindy (and apologise to my sister for the heinous crimes I committed ).

I'll refrain from posting the Japanese version of Kewpie, this is scary enough ;

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Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/10/2009 9:10 PM

They have like zillion different types here

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Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/11/2009 4:00 AM

Bildi Lilli is supposedly the predecessor to Barbie, and some other <ahem> modern dolls.

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#11

Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/12/2009 8:15 PM

Liitle girl in toy store..."I'd like a Barbi and a GI joe please"

Saleslady "Barbi normally comes with Ken"

Little girl "no, she only fakes it with Ken!"

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Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/13/2009 2:46 AM

ROFL !

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Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

03/13/2009 2:54 AM

Here's some more on Barbara Millicent Roberts.

hmmmm.....

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#14
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Re: March 9, 1959 – The Barbie Doll Debuts

11/11/2010 12:45 AM

Barbie doll is the best of all dolls, she is my favorite, anyway thought this could be interesting I found this website http://www.ThatsMyFace.com/f/custom_doll_head that can create a super-realistic doll heads of anyone from just a photo. Imagine making doll of yourself, your kids, your boss or your favorite celebrity!

Apparently they can make the heads in many scales to fit Barbie-like dolls, Tonner dolls or even smaller figurines like Polly Pocket.

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