When it comes to the history of American made toys, few are as iconic as Barbie.
Debuting in 1959, Barbie immediately became a cultural phenomenon. She was the subject of her own fashion show on her 50th birthday, the star of Aqua’s 1997 hit “Barbie Girl,” and one of the most prominent toys under the Mattel brand. Barbie has maintained influence by constantly adapting with the times, which has seen her dressed as everything from a fashion model to a business woman. Combined with the prevalence of Barbie media such as books and movies, it’s hard to deny the legacy of this famous doll throughout history.
These facts make it all the more surprising that the “first” Barbie doll wasn’t actually called Barbie.
In 1952, a risque doll called Lilli was produced in Germany. Lilli was based on a comic-strip character that appeared in the newspaper Bild-Zeitung, and the doll was sold as a gag gift for adults in tobacco shops. Yet in spite of these origins, the Lilli doll became popular with children who enjoyed dressing the character in various outfits.
In 1956, during a vacation with her daughter Barbara, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler saw the Lilli doll and wanted to adapt it for American children. Mattel purchased the rights to the Lilli doll and quickly went to work.
During the American International Toy Fair in 1959, Handler debuted the first Barbie doll. The name was derived from Handler’s daughter Barbara, whose vivid imagination while playing make-believe inspired the doll. Barbie’s boyfriend “Ken” wouldn’t debut until 1961, who was similarly named after Handler’s son.
Though Barbie was not as racy as Lilli, the concept of an adult woman doll remained a key influence in Barbie’s design. Handler believed it was important for girls to dream about their future, which explains why Barbie has so many hair styles and outfits. Though Barbie is typically portrayed with flowing blonde hair and a handbag in tow, she is designed to be a reflection of anyone who plays with her.
Not only was Barbie unlike anything that came before her, the doll’s ad campaign largely contributed to her success as well. Toy commercials are commonplace nowadays, but this was not the case leading into the 1960s. In fact, toys were only marketed to parents who were looking to buy presents for Christmas. Barbie was released in an era when children were just starting to have regular allowances, and Mattel wanted to capitalize on this by marketing directly to kids.
The first Barbie commercial aired during an episode of Mickey Mouse Club, one of the most popular children’s shows of the time. More than 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold in its first year, smashing all previous sales records held by toys.
As time went on, Barbie would continue to be redesigned to match the cultural norms of her respective time period. Her eyes would be edited to become softer, and she would gain friends that represented different racial backgrounds and facial features. Yet the underlying message of Barbie dolls remains the same: girls can be anything they dream of. No matter the direction the Barbie brand goes in the future, her place in the history of American toys will remain for generations to come.
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