On March 9, 1959, the first Barbie doll goes on display at the American Toy Fair in New York City.

First Barbie doll 1959

First Barbie doll 1959

Eleven inches tall, with a waterfall of blond hair, Barbie was the first mass-produced toy doll in the United States with adult features. The woman behind Barbie was Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel, Inc. with her husband in 1945. After seeing her young daughter ignore her baby dolls to play make-believe with paper dolls of adult women, Handler realized there was an important niche in the market for a toy that allowed little girls to imagine the future.

Ruth Handler, Co-founder of Mattel Inc. and creator of Barbie

Ruth Handler, Co-founder of Mattel Inc. and creator of Barbie

Barbie’s appearance was modeled on a doll named Lilli, based on a German comic strip character. Originally marketed as a racy gag gift to adult men in tobacco shops, the Lilli doll later became extremely popular with children. Mattel bought the rights to Lilli and made its own version, which Handler named after her daughter, Barbara.  Note:  I cropped out the caption of the comic below.  I tried to use Google Translate to check if it was appropriate.  The Google translate didn’t do a great job but the first sentence seemed a little racy but this just may be out of context.  If you want to see for yourself the full picture is available here.

Lilli comic strip © Reinhard Beuthin.

Lilli comic strip © Reinhard Beuthin.

With its sponsorship of the “Mickey Mouse Club” TV program in 1955, Mattel became the first toy company to broadcast commercials to children. They used this medium to promote their new toy, and by 1961, the enormous consumer demand for the doll led Mattel to release a boyfriend for Barbie. Handler named him Ken, after her son.

A boyfriend for Barbie, Ken in 1961 Photographer: Joe Dias Stylist:Beverly Elam

A boyfriend for Barbie, Ken in 1961
Photographer: Joe Dias
Stylist:Beverly Elam

Barbie’s best friend, Midge, came out in 1963; her little sister, Skipper, debuted the following year.

Barbie's BFF Midge 1963

Barbie’s BFF Midge 1963

Skipper, Barbies little sister

Skipper, Barbies little sister

Over the years, Barbie generated huge sales–and a lot of controversy. On the positive side, many women saw Barbie as providing an alternative to traditional 1950s gender roles. She has had a series of different jobs, from airline stewardess, doctor, pilot and astronaut to Olympic athlete and even U.S. presidential candidate. Others thought Barbie’s never-ending supply of designer outfits, cars and “Dream Houses” encouraged kids to be materialistic. It was Barbie’s appearance that caused the most controversy, however. Her tiny waist and enormous breasts–it was estimated that if she were a real woman, her measurements would be 36-18-38–led many to claim that Barbie provided little girls with an unrealistic and harmful example and fostered negative body image.  She has become a controversy again in 2014 as she is on the cover of Sports Illustrated 50th Anniversary Swimsuit edition.

Barbie Sports Illustrated

Barbie Sports Illustrated

Despite the criticism, sales of Barbie-related merchandise continued to soar, topping 1 billion dollars annually by 1993. Since 1959, more than 800 million dolls in the Barbie family have been sold around the world and Barbie is now a bona fide global icon.

Barbie through the years.

Barbie through the years.

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