The History of the First Barbie Doll isn’t all Glitz and Glamour

Perhaps you’ve owned one…okay, maybe a few…alright, you’ve probably owned a LOT of Barbies in your life, but do you really know her? This beauty has been an important pop culture icon since her American debut in 1959, but how exactly did she rise to fame?

With over a billion Barbie dolls sold over the past 50+ years, our favorite plastic princess has held almost every career possible, including a pediatrician, an Army officer, and a veterinarian — but she was originally marketed as a teenage fashion model….or was she? The truth is much more scandalous than you’ve been led to believe! If you’ve ever wondered where it all started, how it all began, the history of your beloved Barbie, we’ve got you covered!

Perhaps you’re already familiar with the iconic first-ever Barbie. She had a golden ponytail (a brunette version was also available) and wore a black and white zebra striped one-piece bathing suit. Of course, she came sensibly attired in black peep-toe pumps, too. Barbie’s sideways glance may have been demure but her makeup certainly wasn’t, with a bold red lip and blue eyeshadow. A mint condition first edition Barbie now has more value than most cars. If you find one in perfect condition, it can be worth as much as $27,000.

Barbie dolls are considered playscale at approximately 11.5 inches tall. The teenage fashion model’s clothes were originally designed by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson and hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Couture for a doll? Nothing but the best for our girl! Barbie’s first impression was a huge hit, and over 350,000 Barbies were sold during the first year alone. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg! What really set Barbie apart from other dolls being sold at the time was her mature, more “adult” figure (more on that later!).

Ruth Handler was an American businesswoman married to Mattel’s co-founder, Elliot Handler. She noticed that her pre-teen daughter, Barbara, a.k.a. Barbie, preferred to play with adult paper dolls instead of baby dolls. After a trip to Germany, Ruth discovered the Bild Lilli doll and brought several with her back to states, where she redesigned it into the classic Barbie doll we all have come to know and love. The re-imagined doll premiered on March 9, 1959 at the American International Toy Fair in New York, and the rest is history. Or is it?

The Bild Lilli doll that Barbie is based on has a story all her own that we think is important, too! Bild Lilli had a…errr, very mature figure meant to appeal to adults, not children. In fact, before she was ever a doll, Lilli appeared in a 1940’s adult comic strip. She was a buxom gold digger who seduced wealthy men. The comic strip was so popular that in 1955, Lilli was turned into a doll intended to be a gag gift. She was only available for purchase at adult places like bars and “novelty” stores. The blonde bombshell had quite the wardrobe and a large variety of accessories. Little girls in Germany soon wanted Bild Lilli as a toy for themselves.

This tale gets a little darker, too. Louis Marx and Company filed a lawsuit against Mattel in 1961 for infringing on Greiner & Hausser’s patent for Bild Lilli’s hip joint, and additionally, for Barbie being a direct copy of the German doll. Do we wish we were a fly on the wall for that hearing? You betcha! Clearly Mattel had proof that, while the influence was obvious, they did not directly copy Bild Lilli, because the case was dropped. In the end, Mattel bought Greiner & Hausser’s copyright and patent rights in 1964 for $21,600 (That would be about $175,000 today!). That seems a pretty meager price for a toy giant like Mattel to pay to acquire the inspiration for their best selling doll!

Barbara Millicent Roberts went on to change the world and the toy industry as we know it. A few changes here, a few changes there, and the demure fashion model went on to become a Robotics Engineer who wears flat shoes (along with a whole host of other things). And now you know the full story of how she began!


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Written by Gemr
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