Elliot Handler and his friend Harold Matson started their business ‘Mattel’ in the year 1945 and created a garage workshop for producing picture frames. Within a short time, as Matson sold his share of the business, Elliot and his wife Ruth took its full control. Eventually, they started making dollhouse furniture, which proved to be such a success that Mattel switched to making nothing but toys. Mattel was formally incorporated in California in 1948 and in 1955, acquired the rights to produce the popular ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ products.
In 1956, while Ruth Handler was vacationing in Switzerland, she was attracted by a German doll, called Bild Lilli. With mile-long legs, voluptuous bustline and scant clothing, the Lilli doll was, in fact, intended for adult men and some men used to ride around with Lilli on their dashboards.
Ruth became interested, as she thought it would be the perfect toy for her daughter, Barbara, whom she had observed playing, along with her girlfriends, with paper dolls that depicted teenage girls or adult women. Handler thought, that was their way of practicing for adulthood.
Before she came back home from Switzerland, Ruth Handler bought two Lilli dolls for her daughter Barbara and one for herself. She convinced her husband and the all-male design team at Mattel to create a more mature female doll to tap into the emerging kid consumerism. As Mattel began crafting the dream doll by 1957, they kept Lilli's general figure, but scrubbed off some of her makeup, relaxed her smile and used soft vinyl instead of hard plastic to construct her. Fashion designer Charlotte Johnson was hired to create a matching wardrobe for the new doll, which will not hide her extreme hourglass shape, as the doll had to have an unrealistically narrow waist and large bust.
Barbie Millicent Roberts, the new doll, named after the daughter of Ruth Handler, debuted on 9 March 1959 and instead of portraying Barbie as a doll, the television commercials depicted Barbie as a teenage model, which is an instance of presenting the product as a personality. Unlike other dolls in those days, Barbie was a grown-up figure. While most of the other dolls were babies that the girls could pretend to mother, with Barbie, they could fantasize about being teenagers or adults and within a short time, Barbie became a symbol of freedom and possibility for young girls. The first Barbie was sold for $3 and in 1959, the year Barbie was released, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold.
Over the span of her existence, Barbie has changed her forms many times and had over 200 careers. Ruth Handler always saw Barbie as a reflection of the times, as she went to the moon in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong. Since then, she has been everything from a doctor to a paleontologist to a rock star to a computer engineer. She came as either a brunette or blond and a red-headed Barbie was released in 1961.
The first African-American Barbie and Hispanic Barbie were introduced in 1980. One of Barbie's outfits, a wedding gown, inspired the need to create a groom or at least a love interest of Barbie and her longtime boyfriend, Ken Carson, was introduced in 1961, which was named after Ruth Handler’s son. Later, Mattel created more dolls to add to the Barbie's circle of family and friends, including Skipper, Barbie's younger sister, and Francie, a cousin. Barbie would also receive African American friends with the Christie and Julia dolls in 1969.
Today, after 60 years of its creation, Barbie is regarded as a global icon for inspiring the girls in every corner of the world to be anything she likes. All through her career, Barbie has always offered girls multiple choices and endless storytelling possibilities. In 2009, Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday and the celebrations included a runway show in New York for the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.