March 9, 2011

52 years ago today the world first met Barbie

Day 68 of Vintage 365


It's fascinating to stop and think about the vast (one might say immeasurable) number of events that have taken place throughout human history on any given day. Some were immensely monumental - such as the start of a war or the death of a world famous Hollywood star - others have been as simple and seemingly ordinary as a person doing their laundry or tying their shoes.

On this day in 1959, one event took place that would fall closer to the monumental side of things - even if there was no way of knowing so at the time - and it's all thanks to Barbie. Yes, Barbie (as in Barbie doll). Fifty-two years ago on March 9th Barbie made her official debut at the American International Toy Show (AITS) in New York.

Though we now think of Barbie dolls (and their similar looking counterparts) as being as commonplace as sliced bread, at the time Barbie was one of the first dolls centered around an adult body and teenage/adult fashions (she was also one of the first very 11.5 inch tall fashion dolls to emerge on the scene).

The brainchild of Ruth Handler, Barbie was named after her daughter (Barbara), who one of Ruth's main inspirations behind creating the Barbie doll in the first place. Ruth noticed that when Barbara was playing with her paper dolls (a very popular toy in the 50s), the young girl often gave them adult rolls. This struck a chord with Ruth who realized that most dolls at the time were created to look like (and be played with in the roll of) babies and young children. Sensing a genuine need in the toy market for a more mature looking doll, Ruth put the idea for just such a toy forward to her husband (Elliot Handler), who was the cofounder of Mattel.

Though it took a while (and some convincing with the help of a German doll that resembled what Barbie would go on to look like, called Bild Lilli) before Elliot and Mattel got behind the idea, by the end of the 1950s they were willing to give Ruth's idea a shoot, and the rest, as they say, is history.


{Though Barbie is well known today for her extensive wardrobe, when she first burst on the scene, the ensemble she came packaged with consisted primarily of an elegant stripped bathing suit and a pair of lovely black peep toe heels (as seen in this photo, which shows four original 1959 Barbies, just as they looked when they debuted that years at the AITS). Image via Wikipeida.}


In the five decades (now into the sixth) since her quite launch at the AITS, Barbie has become one of the best selling and most beloved dolls of all time. I'd venture to guess that nearly everyone reading this post has owned a Barbie, had a child that called at least one Barbie doll her own, or had a sibling who played with Barbies at some point in their life. Barbie (and her stylish pink Corvette) were integral to my 1980s childhood, just as they were for my little sister in 90s.

Though Barbie has been transformed more times over the years than Madonna, she's always retained the same fundamental appearance and purpose (to be an adult looking - and dressing - doll for children and adults of all ages to play with and adore). Though I don't collect Barbie dolls these days, I'll never stop loving them and all of the fantastic childhood memories I have of playing with this classic, plastic fashion doll.

Barbie is an icon the world over and still one of the most purchased and highly collected dolls (or toys in general, for that matter) of all time. She's been copied countless times, securitized from every angle, found herself at the middle of many controversies (not the least of which is the charge that she gives children an unrealistic/idealized idea of what the adult female body looks like), and parodied to the hills.

However, when all is said and done (and played with) there's no denying that she's held her plastic head up high through it all, to persevere as one of the most fashionable, enjoyable, timeless toys of the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

Happy 52nd launch day anniversary Barbie, here’s to countless more wonderful years to come!


  1. Hi Jessica, what a great post, as yours always are :) Barbies were so pale back then too, which I actually like! ;-)

  2. I loved Barbie. It's hard to believe she's so old now!

  3. Happy birthday Barbie! How neat to see real life examples of the first dolls, I have a repro, but her skin isn't nearly as alabaster and the hair's different. Very cool!