Mattel's Barbie Doll Introduced
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
The Barbie Doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959 by toy maker, Mattel. This date is also used as Barbie's official birthday. Ruth Handler is credited with the creation of the doll using a German doll called Bild Lilli as her inspiration. Mattel has sold over a billion Barbie dolls, making it the company's largest and most profitable line. The Barbie Doll is the figurehead of a brand of Mattel dolls and accessories, including other family members and collectible dolls. Barbie has been the subject of numerous controversies and lawsuits, often involving parodies of the doll and her lifestyle.The doll has transformed the toy business in affluent communities worldwide by becoming a vehicle for the sale of related merchandise (accessories, clothes, friends of Barbie, etc.). She has a significant impact on social values by conveying characteristics of female independence, and with her multitude of accessories, an idealized upscale life-style that can be shared with affluent friends. Here is a clip of the history of the Barbie Doll:
Ruth Handler watched her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles. At the time, most children's toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel's directors.
During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children Barbara and Kenneth, Ruth Handler came across a German toy doll called Bild Lilli. The adult-figured doll was exactly what Handler had in mind, so she purchased three of them. She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel. The Lilli doll was based on a popular character appearing in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Bild. Lilli was a blonde bombshell, a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to adults, it became popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.
Upon her return to the United States, Handler redesigned the doll (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and the doll was given a new name, Barbie, after Handler's daughter Barbara. A clip featuring the first Barbie Doll commercial:
The first Barbie doll wore a black-and-white zebra striped swimsuit and signature topknot ponytail, and was available as either a blonde or brunette. The doll was marketed as a "Teen-age Fashion Model," with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.
Louis Marx and Company sued Mattel in March 1961. After licensing Lilli, they claimed that Mattel had “infringed on Greiner & Hausser's patent for Bild-Lilli's hip joint, and also claimed that Barbie was "a direct take-off and copy" of Bild-Lilli. The company additionally claimed that Mattel "falsely and misleadingly represented itself as having originated the design". Mattel counter-claimed and the case was settled out of court in 1963. In 1964, Mattel bought Greiner & Hausser's copyright and patent rights for the Bild-Lilli doll for $21,600.
Ruth Handler believed that it was important for Barbie to have an adult appearance, and early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll's chest, which had distinct breasts. Barbie's appearance has been changed many times, most notably in 1971 when the doll's eyes were adjusted to look forwards rather than having the demure sideways glance of the original model. A clip with the evolution of the Barbie Doll from the 1950's to today:
Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television advertising, which has been copied widely by other toys. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second. The standard range of Barbie dolls and related accessories are manufactured to approximately 1/6 scale, which is also known as playscale. The standard dolls are approximately 11½ inches tall.
Barbie has become a cultural icon and has been given honors that are rare in the toy world. In 1974, a section of Times Square in New York City was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris at the Louvre held a Barbie exhibit in 2016. The exhibit featured 700 Barbie dolls over two floors as well as works by contemporary artists and documents (newspapers, photos, video) that contextualize Barbie.
In 1986, the artist Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie. The painting sold at auction at Christie's, London for $1.1 million. In 2015, The Andy Warhol Foundation then teamed up with Mattel to create an Andy Warhol Barbie. Artist Al Carbee took thousands of photographs of Barbie and created countless collages and dioramas featuring Barbie in various settings. Carbee was the subject of the feature-length documentary Magical Universe. Carbee's collage art was presented in the 2016 Barbie exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris in the section about visuals artists who have been inspired by Barbie. From the start, some have complained that "the blonde, plastic doll conveyed an unrealistic body image to girls." Criticisms of Barbie are often centered around concerns that children consider Barbie a role model and will attempt to emulate her. Although Barbie had been criticized for its unrealistic-looking "tall and petite" dolls, the company has been offering more dolls set to more realistic standards in order to help promote a positive body image. A clip featuring the designer center at Mattel:
Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a large range of Barbie branded goods such as books, apparel, cosmetics, and video games. Barbie has had a media franchise starting with Barbie in the Nutcracker in 2001, when she began appearing in a series of animated films. Barbie's direct-to-DVD animated films have sold over 110 million units worldwide, as of 2013. In addition, the brand has had two television specials in 1987, Barbie and the Rockers: Out of This World and Barbie and the Sensations: Rockin' Back to Earth, as well as a hit song, "Barbie Girl" (1997) by Aqua. She is also a supporting character in the My Scene films as well as in the Pixar films Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3.
In 2009, Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday. The celebrations included a runway show in New York for the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The event showcased fashions contributed by fifty well-known haute couturiers including Diane von Fürstenberg, Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Bob Mackie, and Christian Louboutin. In 2018, Mattel released a new “Inspiring Women” collection that features three ground-breaking, history-making women—Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson. In 2019, with the marking of Barbie's 60th anniversary, Mattel released a new Barbie body type that featured a smaller bust, less defined waist and more defined arms. The addition was just the latest in Barbie's expanded line featuring a wider array of body shapes.
In 2020, Mattel sold $1.35 billion worth of Barbie dolls and accessories and this was their best sales growth in two decades This is an increase from the $950 million the brand sold during 2017.
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