Wednesday, February 7, 2018


Barbie: A Little History

      In 1959 the doll toys business began a radical change with the introduction of Barbie dolls developed by Ruth Handler, the co-founder of Mattel.  She did this against resistance from her own company.  "My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices."

     Three of the Missouri museums we visited last year had sections giving a history of the evolution of dolls. The museums were the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, University of Missouri-Kansas City;  The World's Largest Toy Museum, Branson; and the St. Joseph Museum.

     Originally the focus in the exhibits was obvious that dolls were babies to be cared for.  With the right dolls, girls could learn much about child care and their future roles as mothers.  The major and in some cases the only role that their future held.  Feed, love, care for and in some cases with some dolls change their wet diapers.

Before Barbie dolls were babies to be tended to so girls could learn how to be mothers.

     The first year 350,000 Barbie's were sold, it is estimated that now over a billion have been sold.   The doll was so skinny that some of us thought, "If these dolls are a model of women should be, maybe this is the way to more eating disorders."  

    But Handler was one of the first women to recognize that women were locked in the mother/wife role and needed a broader range of ideas of what they could be.

    In 1963 Betty Friedan came out with the book,  The Feminine Mystique, in which she discusses the limited roles that women are allowed because society had psychologically limited them in the role of wife and mother.  Rather than lead the movement Barbie evolved along with the changes being made in women's roles and encouraged women to believe they could do more.  For example, in 1963 the Russians had the first female astronaut and soon a Barbie astronaut was on sale. 

The possible careers that women could have were endless as far as Barbie was concerned.

    The earliest roles were stewardess, fashion designer, nurse, and business designer.  In 1973 just as women were being allowed in larger numbers into medical school, she became a surgeon. 

    In the 1990's the doors flew wide open and she truly could be in many occupations.  For example there are a doctor Barbie, 1988 and a NASCAR Barbie 1998.   In 2016 she had risen to the point she ran for president.

   The initial Barbie was inexpensive, $3, and company made their fortune selling costumes for her.  As the women's movement grew Barbie's clothes not only represented fashion, but tools and objects were made available to her as she entered different occupations. This includes a pink convertible and a jeep. 

      Over the years changes have been made in Barbie's looks to keep her up to date. This is obvious in most exhibitions I have studied in these museums. This includes hair style and color, waist size and general facial features.  One of these is how she looks at you, early she had a sideways glance, but that was changed to looking directly at whoever was handling her--suggesting a more independent woman.

    Barbie has been given a range of friends by Mattel that you are likely to find in the exhibits dedicated to her: a Hispanic Teresa and a African American Christie. 

    The first attempt to make a black Barbie, they only changed her color and not her features so it was not a success.  More recently they have added several Barbie's with black features.

    Time magazine has listed Barbie number two on its list of most influential toys of all time with LEGO being number one and G.I. Joe being number three.

    In Kansas City a non-profit organization, The United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC) that promotes the collecting of doll and has a museum and a monthly magazine for doll fans.     

    My oldest Daughter Jerilyn has a marvelous collection of dolls including several dozen Barbie's, and she was kind enough to let me take pictures of that part of her collection for this story.

  When I was a child, women worked as mothers, housewives, and around the farm-- full time jobs.  My views of opportunities for women have been modified over the years, but not by Barbie.  My wife, when we dated informed me that she intended to become a professional, which she did.  

    Our four daughters choose occupations that were not open to women when I was growing up.  Now I see Barbie as being a one model to show children the possibilities to explore areas that interested them that would bring more joy into their life.  

Even becoming president was a possibility.