With Ruth Handler as the catalyst, Mattel’s first Barbie doll debuted at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. The 11-1/2-inch, curvaceous, fresh-faced doll with a ponytail and a black-and-white striped swimsuit was unlike anything ever seen before.
Handler’s first attempt at doll making launched one of the most amazing success stories in the history of children’s toys as Barbie evolved into a worldwide phenomenon.
“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Handler said in her 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
To celebrate Handler’s vision, here are 10 fun facts about Barbie.
1. Jack Ryan, a former Pentagon engineer, helped design the first Barbie. Mattel hired Ryan for his space-age savvy and knowledge of materials – meaning he’d be able to make high-quality, well-functioning toys.
2. Barbie was first introduced at New York’s American International Toy Fair in 1959. Show buyers were not impressed. They were wrong. Mattel sold 350,000 dolls that first year, and billions since.
3. Barbie, whose full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, was named after Ruth and Elliot Handler’s daughter, Barbara, a shy 17-year-old attending Los Angeles’ Hamilton High School. “It is very strange to have a doll named after you,” the original Barbie has said. “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the doll; I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.”
4. Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend, was introduced in 1961. And yes, he was named after the Handlers’ son. “Ken doll is Malibu,” Ken Handler once said. “He goes to the beach and surfs.” In high school, Handler “played the piano and went to movies with subtitles. I was a real nerd.”
5. Barbie never married, she just likes to wear wedding dresses. Lots of wedding dresses.
6. What glass ceiling? Sure, Barbie started out a teenage fashion model but through the years she’s been an astronaut, surgeon, tennis pro, rock star, ballerina, chef, UNICEF ambassador, paleontologist, presidential candidate and perhaps most impressively, an American Idol winner – move over Carrie Underwood!
7. Barbie is a fashionista. Gucci, Versace, Vera Wang and Givenchy have all contributed designs to Barbie’s wardrobe.
8. The first Barbie sold for $3 in 1959. A Blond Ponytail Barbie #1 in a pink silhouette dress box sold for $27,450 at auction in 2006.
9. Ruth Handler was an unlikely creator of Barbie. Handler, who died in 2002 at the age of 85, didn’t play with dolls as a little girl and said in her autobiography she “rarely had lengthy phone conversations or sleepovers like the other kids did. I thought ‘girl talk’ was stupid.”
10. British fashion icon Twiggy was the first real-life celebrity to get her own Barbie – the supermodel’s doll wore a mod mini-skirt and go-go boots. Dolls wearing the classic looks of Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, as well as more modern women like Nicki Minaj and J.K. Rowling followed.
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