In 1959, Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states, respectively. The United States launched its first weather station in space.
Oh, and a blue-eyed, blonde-haired revolution debuted at the New York Toy Fair and changed the world forever.
Her name was Barbie.
Maybe you’ve heard of her.
In the 1950s, mother and inventor Ruth Handler saw an untapped market and cornered it. Frustrated at the lack of variety in toy options for her young daughter, Ruth decided to give her daughter and young girls like her a new kind of doll.
Inspiration came from an unlikely place.
While on vacation in Europe, a German fashion doll based on a comic strip character known as “Bild Lilli” caught Ruth’s eye. She had blonde hair, long legs, pouty lips, and enviable eyeliner wings.
She was exactly what Ruth had been looking for.
But her work was far from over.
You see, Ruth Handler wanted to give little girls more than just a doll. She also wanted to give this doll an entire wardrobe, full of exquisite dresses, luxurious pajamas, high-heeled shoes, and tiny accessories.
She also wanted to name her “Barbara” in honor of the daughter who inspired Ruth’s vision. Unfortunately, Barbara was taken, so Ruth settled for a nickname—Barbie.
It took over three years for Barbie to hit the market.
It took slightly longer for people to even notice her.
Barbie debuted at the National Toy Fair on March 9th, 1959 to radio silence. While Mattel was confident they had a bestseller on their hands, naysayers claimed that little girls were only interested in playing with baby dolls. For a few months, it seemed they were right.
Then, summer came.
The very first Barbie commercial hit television screens everywhere.
In Handler’s own words: “Barbie didn’t walk. She ran.”
Over 350,000 dolls were sold in her first year on the market, and the demand kept growing. Soon, little girls were begging Mattel for a boy doll. And so, in 1961, Ken was borne from the steady stream of letters and heartfelt pleas from little girls across the world. While initially reluctant to make a boy doll, Ruth’s gamble paid off. Barbie’s boyfriend, named after Ruth Handler’s son Kenneth, was a hit with consumers everywhere.
In the 1980s, Barbie mania was starting to die down. In response, the team at Mattel decided to launch a new line of Barbies: career-oriented dolls. There were astronauts, businesswomen, scuba divers, engineers, and more. A 1985 commercial summed up this shift perfectly with one slogan: “We girls can do anything.”
While Barbie has weathered some controversies and an ever-changing market, one thing has remained: the impact she’s had on girls and women everywhere.
With the recent release of “Barbie” starring Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie, Barbie has surged to the forefront of public consciousness once more. However, for many Baby Boomers, Barbie probably never strayed far from their mind or heart.
After all, Barbie is nearly 65 years old—the same age as many members of the Baby Boomer generation. To put it into perspective, Barbie is nearly eligible for Medicare!
Yes, many Boomers had the pleasure of growing up with Barbie. Perhaps you watched the very first Barbie commercial. Maybe you had the original Barbie, with her iconic black-and-white swimsuit. There’s even a chance someone reading this may have been one of those little girls who begged Mattel to give Barbie a boyfriend.
Although Ruth Handler passed away in 2002, her greatest creation will live forever.
Her name is Barbie.
I know you’ve heard of her.
Originally published July 28, 2023