Ruth Handler Barbie's Mom

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Mattel Inc. | Facebook

Ruth Handler
Co-owner of Mattel Inc.
Founded: 1945

"When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl's self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts."-Ruth Handler

When Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler first proposed that the company make a grown-up doll, the marketing staff at Mattel balked at the idea. Little girls like playing with baby dolls, they proclaimed. And they were certain that adult women wouldn't want their children to have a doll with breasts. But the budding business dynamo wasn't one to give up easily. It took her nearly three years, but Handler finally convinced the company to make the doll. It was probably the best decision they ever made. Barbie, as Ruth would name the 11 ½ -inch doll, was an instant hit, not only making Mattel an undisputed leader in toy manufacturing, but also creating a $1.9 billion per year industry.

The company that would eventually become one of the world's leading toy manufacturers began rather inauspiciously in a garage in El Segundo, California. The original founders, Harold Matson and Elliot Handler, dubbed the venture "Mattel," creating the name by combining letters of their first and last names. Mattel's first product was picture frames, but Elliot developed a side business making dollhouse furniture from picture frame scraps.

Believing the company was doomed to fail, Matson sold out to his partner, and Handler's wife, Ruth, joined him as co-owner. Encouraged by the success of their doll furniture, the Handlers switched the company's emphasis to toys and began making a line of musical products, including a child-sized ukulele and a patented hand-crank music box, which generated much of the company's revenue in the '50s and '60s.

The company did reasonably well, but was far from an industry powerhouse. It was in 1956 that Ruth Handler hit upon the ingenious idea that would rocket Mattel to the forefront of the toy industry and fascinate four generations of young girls.

Handler got the inspiration for the Barbie doll while watching her young daughter, Barbara, and her friends playing with paper dolls. The girls liked to play adult or teenage make-believe with the dolls, imagining them as college students, cheerleaders and adults with careers. It instantly dawned on Handler that make-believe and pretending about the future is an important part of growing up. In researching the market, she discovered a void and became determined to fill the niche with a 3-D doll.

Mattel designers had their doubts, going as far as to say that making such a doll was impossible. While vacationing in Europe, Handler discovered a German doll named Lilli-a quasi-pornographic novelty gift for men. She brought three of the dolls home and sent Mattel designers off to Japan telling them to "find us a manufacturer."

Handler's vision for the doll, which she called Barbie (her daughter's nickname), was that she be the "ideal" woman. According to legend, Barbie's face and figure were created from a combination of the best features of the day's most popular stars, including Audrey Hepburn's famous eyebrows.

By 1959, Barbie was a reality and ready to hit the stores. But there were a few snags. In early market research, it was revealed that mothers hated the doll, one reportedly saying, "Wow! That's really a daddy's doll, isn't it?" Toy retailers were also less than impressed with Barbie. When the doll was introduced at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York City, retailers had never before seen a doll so completely unlike the baby and toddler dolls that were popular at the time, and many refused to carry it.

Undaunted, Handler went directly to young girls with television ads that presented Barbie as a real person. Thanks to this innovative marketing approach, within three months of her debut, Barbie dolls were selling at a rate of 20,000 per week. Demand for the doll was so great that it took several years for the supply to keep up with the demand. Barbie was so successful that she enabled Mattel to go public in 1960, and within five years, Mattel would join the ranks of the Fortune 500.

Over the next few years, an entire industry sprang up around Barbie. Designers continually worked to create new clothes for Barbie that reflected the changing fashions of the day. But they didn't stop at merely clothes. Barbie soon had her own dream house, a car, a plane, a yacht and dozens of other accessories, not to mention a host of "friends," including dolls named Midge, Skipper and Christie. Barbie even got her own boyfriend, Ken, named after Handler's son. Ironically, ranging from $5 and up, most of Barbie's clothes and accessories cost more than the doll itself (Barbie cost $3). In fact, today Barbie accessories generate nearly 40 percent of Mattel's revenue.

Since her "birth," approximately 1 billion Barbies have been sold in four decades, making Handler's "child" the bestselling fashion doll in every major global market, with worldwide annual sales topping $1.9 billion.

In 1999, at a gala event celebrating Barbie's 40th birthday, Handler was asked if she was surprised by Barbie's tremendous success. "I always thought Barbie was very, very basic," she replied. "She was as basic a toy for play as was possible to have, and I had faith that she would be a great toy. But I never thought that any toy could ever last this long or grow this big."

After a personal victory over breast cancer in the mid-1970s, Ruth Handler retired from Mattel. She went on to use her experience and expertise to start Ruthton Corp.¬, which is dedicated to the development and manufacturing of breast prostheses called "Nearly Me." By meeting with department store buyers, promoting the products herself across the country, and talking candidly with other breast cancer survivors, Handler built her second company into a success. In 1991, she sold Ruthton Corp. to a division of health and beauty aids giant Kimberly-Clark.

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Barbie, But Were Afraid To Ask
  • Barbie's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, and her hometown is Willows, Wisconsin.
  • Barbie's first career was as a teen fashion model. Since then, she's had more than 75 different jobs, including astronaut.
  • The bestselling Barbie doll ever was Totally Hair Barbie, with hair from the top of her head to her toes.
  • Close to 1 billion fashions have been produced for Barbie and her friends since 1959. Currently, about 120 new ensembles are designed for Barbie each year.
  • More than 40 leading fashion designers, including Bob Mackie, Bill Blass, Gianni Versace and Missoni, have created Barbie costumes.
  • The military series of Barbies¬-Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps-underwent revision by the Pentagon to ensure the most realistic costumes.
  • Barbie accessories include a plane, a yacht and 46 houses.
  • Barbie has had 17 dogs, 12 horses, five cats and three ponies.
  • More than 1 billion Barbies have been sold since 1959. Placed head to toe, they would circle the Earth more than seven times.

According to company legend, Ruth Handler wanted the first Ken doll to have idea the men in marketing quickly nixed. Ken's last name, by the way, is Carson.

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