Biography of Ruth Handler, Inventor of Barbie Dolls

Barbie Doll Exhibition At Musee des Arts Decoratifs

Thierry Chesnot / Stringer / Getty Images

Ruth Handler (November 4, 1916–April 27, 2002) was an American inventor who created the iconic Barbie doll in 1959 (the doll was named after Handler's daughter Barbara). Barbie was introduced to the world at the American Toy Fair in New York City. The Ken doll was named after Handler's son and was introduced two years after Barbie debuted. Handler was the co-founder of Mattel, a company that manufactures a variety of popular toys.

Fast Facts: Ruth Handler

  • Known For: Handler founded the toy company Mattel and invented the Barbie doll.
  • Born: November 4, 1916 in Denver, Colorado
  • Parents: Jacob and Ida Mosko
  • Died: April 27, 2002 in Los Angeles, California
  • Spouse: Elliot Handler (m. 1938-2002)
  • Children: 2

Early Life

Handler was born Ruth Marianna Mosko on November 4, 1916, in Denver, Colorado. Her parents were Jacob and Ida Mosko. She married Elliot Handler, her high school boyfriend, in 1938.

Mattel

With Harold "Matt" Matson, Elliot created a garage workshop in 1945. Their business name "Mattel" was a combination of the letters of their last and first names. Matson soon sold his share of the company, so the Handlers, Ruth and Elliot, took full control. Mattel's first products were picture frames. However, Elliot eventually started making dollhouse furniture from picture frame scraps. That proved to be such a success that Mattel switched to making nothing but toys. Mattel's first big-seller was the "Uka-a-doodle," a toy ukulele. It was the first in the line of musical toys.

In 1948, the Mattel Corporation was formally incorporated in California. In 1955, the company changed toy marketing forever by acquiring the rights to produce the popular "Mickey Mouse Club" products. The cross-marketing promotion became common practice for future toy companies. In 1955, Mattel released a successful patented toy cap gun called the burp gun.

Invention of Barbie

In 1959, Ruth Handler created the Barbie doll. Handler would later refer to herself as "Barbie's mom."

Ruth and Elliott Handler With Barbie Doll
Mattell founders Ruth and Elliott Handler with a barbie doll. Courtesy of Mattel 

Handler watched her daughter Barbara and friends playing with paper dolls. The children used them to play make-believe, imagining roles as college students, cheerleaders, and adults with careers. Handler aspired to invent a doll that would better facilitate the way young girls were playing with their dolls.

Handler and Mattel introduced Barbie, the teenage fashion model, to skeptical toy buyers at the annual Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. The new doll was very unlike the baby and toddler dolls that were popular at the time. This was a doll with an adult body.

What was the inspiration? During a family trip to Switzerland, Handler saw the German-made Bild Lilli doll in a Swiss shop and bought one. The Bild Lilli doll was a collector's item and not intended for sale to children; however, Handler used it as the basis for her design for Barbie. The Barbie doll’s first boyfriend, the Ken Doll, debuted two years after Barbie in 1961.

Handler said Barbie was a symbol of freedom and possibility for young girls and women:

“Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices. Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer. I believe the choices Barbie represents helped the doll catch on initially, not just with daughters—who would one day make up the first major wave of women in management and professionals—but also with mothers.”

The Story of Barbie

Handler created a personal story for the very first Barbie doll. She was named Barbie Millicent Roberts and she was from Willows, Wisconsin. Barbie was a teenage fashion model. Now, however, the doll has been made in many versions connected to over 125 different careers, including president of the United States.

Barbie came as either a brunette or blond, and in 1961, a red-headed Barbie was released. In 1980, the first African-American Barbie and Hispanic Barbie were introduced.

The first Barbie was sold for $3. Additional clothing based on the latest runway trends from Paris were sold as well for between $1 and $5. In 1959, the year Barbie was released, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold. Today, a mint condition "#1" Barbie doll can fetch as much as $27,000. To date, more than 70 fashion designers have made clothes for Mattel, using in excess of 105 million yards of fabric.

There has been some controversy over Barbie's figure ever since it was realized that if the doll were a real person, her measurements would be an impossible 36-18-38. Barbie's "real" measurements are 5 inches (bust), 3 1/4 inches (waist), and 5 3/16 inches (hips). Her weight is 7 ¼ ounces, and her height is 11.5 inches.

In 1965, Barbie had bendable legs and eyes that opened and shut. In 1967, a Twist 'N Turn Barbie was released that had a movable body that twisted at the waist.

The best-selling Barbie doll of all time was the Totally Hair Barbie of 1992, which had hair from the top of her head to her toes.

Other Inventions

After fighting breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy in 1970, Handler surveyed the market for a suitable prosthetic breast. Disappointed by the options available, she set about designing a replacement breast that was more similar to a natural one. In 1975, Handler received a patent for Nearly Me, a prosthesis made of material close in weight and density to that of natural breasts.

Death

Handler developed colon cancer in her 80s. She died on April 27, 2002, at the age of 85. Handler was survived by her husband, who died on July 21, 2011.

Legacy

Handler created one of the world's most successful toy companies, Mattel. Her Barbie doll is one of the most popular and iconic toys in the world. In 2016, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris had a Barbie show featuring hundreds of dolls alongside artworks inspired by Barbie.

Sources

  • Gerber, Robin. "Barbie and Ruth: the Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her." Harper, 2010.
  • Stone, Tanya. "The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: a Doll's History and Her Impact on Us." Paw Prints, 2015.