On November 4, 1916, Ruth Handler, creator of the Barbie doll, was born.
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She was the youngest of 10 children born to Polish immigrants – her father was a blacksmith – in Denver, Colorado. Ruth Mosko married her high-school boyfriend, Izzy Handler, and the two settled in Los Angeles, where Izzy, who began to go by his middle name, Elliot, worked in lighting and plastic design, and Ruth worked at Paramount Studios.
Elliot and a business partner, Harold “Matt” Matson, formed a production company they called Mattel. Ruth oversaw the marketing, eventually replacing Matson as her husband’s partner.
Their first big success was a toy ukulele called a Uke-a-Doodle, followed by toy guns, which they began to market by advertising connected to the sponsorship of children’s TV shows, such as Walt Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club.”
The idea for Barbie, which was named for the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara, was inspired by a doll the mother and daughter saw while vacationing in Switzerland. It had an adult-proportioned figure and was based on the title character of a newspaper cartoon strip called “Lilli.” For years, Ruth had been thinking of creating a doll for American girls who would have an adult body and a love of fashion.
Fashion model to career girl
When Barbie was introduced to American consumers, in March 1959, she was revolutionary for her exaggerated figure (one expert calculated that on a real woman, the likelihood of having Barbie’s measurements, which were extrapolated to 39-21-33, would be one in 100,000, and more recent models have endowed her with a waistline less likely to suggest that she suffers from anorexia), and for her extensive wardrobe.
With time, however, Barbie also became interested in a real career – with consumers able to choose from such options as veterinarian or astronaut. Barbie's social circle expanded as well, beyond her male friend Ken, to a black friend called “Colored Francie.” (Longtime suspicions that Ken, who first appeared in 1961 and was named for the Handlers’ son, was Barbie’s romantic partner were confirmed retroactively in 2004 when Mattel announced that the two were splitting up.) For her part, Ruth Handler was never moved by feminist criticism in the 1970s that Barbie contributed to the objectification of women.
The marketing strategy for Barbie, which was based exclusively on TV advertising, followed the pattern pioneered earlier by the Handlers with toy guns, and it worked. By 1964, the Saturday Evening Post reported that the plant where Barbie and company were being produced in Japan employed five thousand workers, and that the doll was receiving (and responding to) 20,000 fan letters a week.
In the 1970s, Ruth Handler, suffering from breast cancer, had a radical mastectomy. Her inability to find a satisfactory prosthesis led her to develop an artificial breast made of foam and silicon, marketed under the name “Nearly Me.” This work branched into volunteer work meant to encourage women to seek early detection of breast cancer, at a time when the subject was still not discussed openly.
Later, an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission led to charges of fraud and false reporting against Handler and several other Mattel officers. She pleaded no contest to the charges, and was sentenced to a fine and community service. In the meantime, both Ruth and Elliot Handler were forced out of the company.
Today, it is known that Barbie’s full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, and, at least according to a series of Barbie books published beginning in the 1960s, that she grew up in the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin. Far more than a billion copies of the doll have been sold over the years, in more than 150 countries.
Overall sales do not seem to have been adversely affected by the ban imposed on Barbie in Saudi Arabia in 2003, where the state-sponsored Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice determined that “Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West.”
Ruth Handler died in 2002, and Elliot in 2011.