On March 9, 1959, the first Barbie doll was released at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Barbie was the first mass produced doll made in the United States with adult features and has since become a cultural icon as well as a subject of much controversy.
The idea for Barbie came from the mind of Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel, Inc. with her husband in 1945. She noticed that her young daughter had stopped playing with her baby dolls in lieu of playing with paper dolls that looked like adults. Handler realized that this specific niche of dolls modeled after adults was something that had yet to be tapped into. Playing with these adult dolls allowed children to imagine the future of themselves as grown-ups.
Barbie’s design and inspiration came from a German doll named Lilli. Lilli was a comic strip character, who was turned into a doll meant to be sold as a gag gift for men sold in tobacco shops. Lilli unexpectedly became a popular toy with children, and Mattel bought the rights to her so that they may create their own version. The name “Barbie” came from Handler’s little girl who was named Barbara. In 1955, Mattel became the first toy company to broadcast commercials targeted at children due to their sponsorship from The Mickey Mouse Club.
After her introduction at the American Toy Fair, and the new use of commercial ads, the popularity of Barbie skyrocketed. The demand for the doll was so great that soon Handler created a boy version of the doll and named it Ken after her son Kenneth.
Along with Barbie’s popularity came a significant amount of controversy. Some thought that Barbie’s mass amounts of material items – her dream house, her multiple cars, and her huge closet of “designer” outfits gave children the idea that being materialistic was a normal and good thing. The thing about Barbie that caused the most outrage though was the size of her waist and breasts which scores of people thought gave children negative views on body image, equating skinny with pretty.
Even with all this criticism though, Barbie has remained a popular and well-known figure in the world of children’s toys and her impact on the toy market is one that will and has go down in history. She has now become a global phenomenon.