Guess who just turned fifty?
Barbie Millicent Roberts. Most of us know her simply as “Barbie.”
In 1959 Mattel stunned the Betsy-Wetsy toy world by introducing a doll with a grown-up shape squeezed into a zebra stripe bathing suit. Barbie sported sassy sunglasses and wobbled atop open-toe black mules. The “teenage fashion model” didn’t hold anything back with her playful sideways glance and hot red lips.
Ruth Chandler who, with her husband Elliott ran Mattel, got the idea for Barbie when she noticed that their own daughter Barbara (Barbie’s namesake) preferred dressing paper dolls with adult clothes to playing “Mommy” with baby dolls. But her colleagues, including Elliot, claimed that Mattel couldn’t affordably manufacture a doll in the US with as much detail as Ruth demanded. Back then Mattel was not set up for international operations. Years later, Ruth Chandler recalled, “That was the official reason my idea was rejected. But I really think the squeamishness of those designers — every last one of them male — stemmed mostly from the fact that the doll would have breasts.”
After three years of perseverance, Ruth wore down in-house opposition and got Mattel to take a chance on Barbie. It wouldn’t be Mattel’s first risk. In 1955 the Chandlers gambled Mattel’s future by committing a half-million dollars to year-round television commercials on the soon-to-be-launched Mickey Mouse Club. Previously, TV toy commercials generally ran only before Christmas and targeted adult buyers, not kid users. Mattel’s ads turned toys into a year-round market. (“You can tell it’s Mattel, it’s swell!”)
Once committed to Barbie, Mattel lined up a Japanese manufacturer that could accommodate a new softer vinyl material that replaced the prevailing rock-hard baby doll heads. A fashion professional designed Barbie’s wardrobe. Thanks to Ruth’s intuition that separately-sold clothes would prove a bonanza, the first Barbie sold for $3.00 with fashionable outfits available for $1.00 to $5.00. (How many of Barbie’s fellow Baby Boomers later discovered that sometimes it was cheaper to outfit their daughters than their daughters’ dolls?)
At the 1959 industry toy show in New York, Barbie’s preview impressed few of the thousands of shopkeepers in attendance. Most reactions echoed the early skepticism at Mattel — no way were parents going to buy a shapely doll for their little girls.
Later Ruth Chandler said that Barbie’s overwhelming success kept her too busy to utter “I told you so.” Recalling the retail expression about products that “walk” off the counter, she said, “Barbie didn’t walk. She ran.” Mattel pushed production past 20,000 dolls per week and still took three years to catch up with demand.
Over the years, Barbie hasn’t been without controversy. A typical estimate for the original Barbie’s measurements if she were a real person is 39-19-33. As America became more aware of teen eating disorders, concerned parents and educators thought that Barbie set an impossible standard for girls. In response, Mattel has toned down Barbie’s shape in today’s dolls.
Barbies that preceded the 1960-1970s feminist movement followed the sex roles of the time. “Nurse Barbie” assisted “Dr. Ken,” Barbie’s boyfriend who hit stores in 1961. (Sweetheart Ken was named after Chandlers’ son.) Likewise, Stewardess Barbie served on a plane piloted by Capt. Ken. However, rather than restrict girls’ ambitions, back in the 1960s Mattel actually hoped that the stewardess doll along with “Career Girl” and “Campus Sweetheart” Barbies would encourage girls to consider professional careers. Ruth Chandler once observed, “Barbie always followed the trends, she didn’t create them.” By now, toy sets have shown Barbie in 108 careers, including pediatrician.
As with most of her fellow Boomers, life hasn’t always been in the pink for Barbie. On Valentine’s Day in 2004, she and Ken split after 43 years. A Mattel publicist issued the following statement on Ken’s behalf: “Barbie and I decided to spend some time apart. She’s got a new look… I’m confident we will always stay friends.”