Ten years have passed since the death of Ruth Handler on April 27, 2002, yet her brilliant invention, Barbie, the world's best-selling doll, lives on.
Barbie debuted on March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. She wore a black and white striped bathing suit, heels and sunglasses. She had platinum hair and her piercing blue eyes were streaked with dark eyeliner; her lips were crimson. Barbie had a tiny waist and long legs -- really long legs.
Barbie was the first mass-marketed American adult doll for girls, but what set Barbie apart from other dolls was that she had breasts. Not just breasts, but busty breasts. Put another way, Barbie was "built." She embodied an almost impossibly stunning woman.
At dinner recently with my 16-year-old granddaughter, Emma Rosman, the subject of Barbie arose. Emma has the proud confidence of a 21st- century teenager. She always seems to know everything. For this reason, she is an exceptionally lively dinner companion. Emma found Barbie an interesting subject. And, of course, immediately had an opinion.
"Barbie is gorgeous," she said. "I never understood the feminist criticism of Barbie. After all, what kid wants a fat, ugly doll?"
Good point, I thought.
Toy Fair buyers were initially indifferent. At first the doll flopped, but by summer 1959, Barbie was a sensation -- so big that dealers could not keep Barbie in stock.
Now more than a half-century later, Barbie is a legend spun from a post-World War II America -- an era in which gorgeous blondes were portrayed as little more than empty-headed trophies lolling in neat suburban homes.
Who was the mother of Barbie?
Ruth Moskowicz Handler, born in 1916, was a stenographer turned entrepreneur. She was a creative, ambitious and substantive businesswoman, who envisioned what Barbie should be and the guts to realize her vision.
The youngest of ten children born to Jewish Polish immigrant parents, Ruth grew up in Denver, Colorado and went to public schools. As a girl, she worked in her father's drugstore, a business he purchased a few years after traveling in steerage to America.
In 1935, Ruth married her high-school sweetheart, Elliot Handler, and as a team they built their empires. But Ruth who was the driving force. The Handler's had two children, Barbie and Ken, who would later bear the names of Ruth's two most celebrated inventions.
The Handler's first major foray into big business occurred during World War II, when they and a friend, Harold Matson, an industrial designer, founded a company Ruth and Elliot would help run for 30 years. (Matson soon dropped out of the partnership.)
In the early 1940s, Elliot, who had studied design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, was an industrial designer interested in the plastics, lucite and plexiglass. Elliot was frustrated that he had no place to construct his designs. So Ruth solved the problem by going to Sears and Roebuck with Elliot. They bought tools, wood, plastics and other equipment to setup a small factory in their garage on credit. Elliot soon began fashioning picture frames and toy furniture for Ruth to sell. Ruth was an excellent saleswoman, and by 1945 Mattel posted $2 million in revenues.
Incessantly entrepreneurial, the couple decided to add further products. Taking advantage of a ukulele fad, Mattel produced plastic ukuleles. Mattel also sold toy pianos. One of Mattel's biggest sellers was a music box that, by 1952, sold 20 million units.
Thus, what started as a toy business in a garage morphed into a worldwide leader in the designing, manufacturing, and marketing of toys and family products generating approximately $665 million in cash flow. By the 1950s, the Handlers, now in their 30's, were already rich and successful. But Ruth Handler was just getting started.
In 1956, they took their kids, Barbie and Ken to Europe. In Lucerne, Switzerland, Ruth spotted several 11-inch adult-like dolls in a shop window. The dolls were identical, but they were all wearing different ski outfits. The dolls were based on a pony-tailed character in a comic strip, Bild Lili, and were familiar to most German-speaking Europeans.
One point Ruth noticed immediately was that she was unable to purchase separate outfits for Bild Lili. To get two outfits, she had to buy two dolls. It was a eureka moment! Ruth's marketing would always offer Barbie customers choices of multiple outfits. Therein would lie the secret of Barbie's magical ability: She could be anybody and everybody.
Ruth wanted a doll that connected girls to what they would look like as women. But designers at Mattel balked, saying such a doll would be too expensive to produce.
"That was the official reason," Ruth explained in her 1994 book, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, co-written with Jacqueline Shannon. "But I really think the squeamishness of those designers -- every single one of them male -- stemmed mostly from the fact that the doll would have breasts."
Three years later, Barbie would be born with a wardrobe of outfits. The doll would cost $3, an outfit $1. In 1960, the Handlers took Mattel public, with a valuation of $10 million. Mattel was on its way to the Fortune 500, and Barbie, the icon and legend, seemed to perfectly reflect the new American woman, who was soon to be swept up by the contemporary Women's Movement.
Once feminists looked closely, however, a barrage of criticism fell upon the blonde beauty who, as one feminist rued, "had a trippingly tartish look that was eerily disturbing." Such criticism wasn't pretty. Nor was it good for business. But Mattel understood that Barbie had to change with the times.
So does Emma.
"Barbie has come a long way from 1959," she says. "She's transitioned into a modern woman. That's the wonder of Barbie. With all those outfits, Barbie is anybody she wants to be -- a model, surgeon, astronaut, paleontologist, rap artist, Avon lady, Air Force jet pilot, NASCAR driver, basketball star and Grand Ole Opry star. Consider that she's run for president three times."
Still, the negative vibe from the women's movement hurt Barbie's sales. Some feminists, even medical experts, grumbled that no real woman could look like Barbie; such proportions weren't humanly achievable.
"Not true," snapped Emma. "To me, Kim Kardashian looks just like Barbie. Kim is pretty. She has large breasts. A tiny waist. And long, long legs. The only difference between them is that Barbie is blonde, and Kim has long black hair."
Then Emma grins; she's thought of something else.
"There's another difference. Barbie is smart and accomplished. Look at all her careers. By comparison, Kim doesn't even have a real career."
Ruth Handler, who died at 85, lived to see Barbie re-emerge and retain her spot as the world's top doll. As for Barbie's next life-changing move, Emma offers a final pearl:
"The moment is right for a Lesbian Barbie. How about Barbie weds Kendra?"
"But what would Ruth say?" I ask.
Not missing a beat, Emma answers: She would say, 'Wonderful! A brand-new demographic.'"
Joan Marans Dim is an historian and co-author, with artist Antonio Masi, of New York's Golden Age of Bridges.
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