Nearly every single person on earth knows who and what “Barbie” is. Arguably the most famous toy ever created, Barbie dolls have become a mass marketed line of merchandise that has captivated and enchanted generations of children, mostly little girls. Although Barbie is a brand that changed the world, few people know her back story…including the fact that she was created by a woman named Ruth Handler.
Ruth Marianna Moskowicz was born on November 4, 1916 in Denver, Colorado to parents who were Polish-Jewish immigrants. In 1938, when Ruth was 22 years old, she married Elliot Handler, a businessman and inventor. Elliot Handler was essential to the devolvement of Mattel Toys in 1945. Mattel Toys is now one of the most famous and powerful toy companies in the world yet, in 1945 when Elliot founded it, Mattel was little more than a tiny start-up business.
While Elliot invented toys and worked on building up his company, Ruth was a dutiful stay-at-home wife and mother. She and Elliot had two children named Barbara and Kenneth. When Barbara was a preteen in the early 1950s, Ruth noticed that she played with paper dolls as if they were adults. This was at a time when the only three-dimensional dolls on the toy market were modeled to look like babies—not adult women. Both Ruth and Barbara lamented that the paper dolls had many limitations such as being easy to tear and having clothes that did not attach or fit well.
From watching her daughter play, Ruth decided that a three-dimensional doll that was shaped like an adult woman (and had a wardrobe of clothes made out of fabric) would be a popular item among many young girls. At the time this was a radical idea and both Elliot and his business partner, Harold Matson, rejected it. Both men believed that no parent would buy their child a doll that had a voluptuous Marilyn-Monroe type figure.
Yet Ruth persisted in promoting the idea of a grown-up looking doll to her husband. In the 1950s, when the Handler family was vacationing in Switzerland, Ruth saw a German doll that was known as a “Bild Lilli Doll.” Lilli was meant to be a gag-gift for adults and was never intended to be a children’s toy. However, Ruth thought the shape of the doll had influential potential for her own idea and so she purchased one and brought it back to America.
Ruth redesigned the Lilli doll and named it “Barbie” in honor of her daughter, Barbara. Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair in March of 1959. The first Barbie wore a striped black and white bathing suit and was available with both blonde and black hair. Like the Barbie of today, the doll appeared to be a woman in her 20s (although a 1960s book series claimed that she was a high school student from Wisconsin). As Ruth expected, her creation was an instant success!
During this period in time, “The Mickey Mouse Club” was one of the most popular television shows for children. Hence, Mattel invested heavily in advertising their product on commercials that would air the same time as the show. The tactic worked; Barbie sales took off and skyrocketed the company of Mattel to fame and the Handlers to fortune.
Barbie went on the spawn an entire line of dolls (including a boyfriend character that was named Ken after the Handler’s son) and merchandise that persists until this day. Ruth became the President of Mattel and was regaled for her insight and persistence in creating and marketing Barbie—efforts that brought financial security to her family and endless happiness to millions of little girls across the globe.
Ruth Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 at the age of 54. After undergoing a mastectomy she made a full recovery. However, she was unhappy with the options for breast prosthesis at the time and so she decided to create her own model that fit her body better. As a result of this effort she founded a company called “Ruthon Corporation” that manufactured a realistic breast prosthesis called “Nearly Me.” This business, like Barbie, went on to help and comfort many people.
After her successful fight against breast cancer, Ruth Handler went on to live another 32 years. She died in California on April 27, 2002 due to complications of surgery for colon cancer; she was 85. Her life-long husband, Elliot, died nine years later when he was in his 90s.
Although they have both passed on, the joy that the Handler’s inventions continue to bring to children is undeniably an incredible legacy that will continue for generations to come!