Known as ‘Barbie’s mom’, businesswoman and inventor Ruth Marianna Handler (1916-2002) is best known for co-founding Mattel, Inc. and for inventing the Barbie doll. To date, Mattel has sold over a billion Barbie dolls, and along with the boyfriend doll Ken, Barbie is one of the most famous and instantly recognisable toys in the world.
However, the figure of Barbie – full name Barbie Millicent Roberts – isn’t without controversy. Often criticised for being overly thin and lacking in diversity, Barbie has often evolved slowly over the course of her 63-year-old existence, and at times Mattel, Inc. has suffered a loss in sales as a result.
Nonetheless, Barbie remains popular today and has been depicted in the long-running show Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, is frequently mentioned in songs and has been dramatised for the 2023 film, Barbie.
Here’s the story of Ruth Handler and her famous invention, the Barbie doll.
She married her childhood sweetheart
Ruth Handler, née Mosko, was born in Colorado in 1916. She married her high school boyfriend Elliot Handler, and the couple moved to Los Angeles in 1938. In LA, Elliot started making furniture, and Ruth suggested that they start a furniture business together.
Ruth was the saleswoman for the company, and landed contracts with a number of high-profile companies. It was at this time that Ruth recognised the potential for a more significant entrepreneurial venture together.
The name ‘Mattel’ was a combination of two names
In 1945, along with business partner Harold Matson, Elliot and Ruth developed a garage workshop. The name ‘Mattel’ was settled upon as a combination of the surname Matson and first name Elliot. Matson soon sold his company share, however, meaning that Ruth and Elliot took over entirely, initially selling picture frames and then dollhouse furniture.
The dollhouse furniture proved so successful that Mattel switched to only making toys. Mattel’s first best-seller was a ‘Uke-a-doodle’, a toy ukulele, that was the first in a line of musical toys. In 1955, the company acquired the rights to produce ‘Mickey Mouse Club‘ products.
She was inspired to create a doll in an adult form
Two stories are often cited as Ruth’s inspiration to create the Barbie doll. The first is that she saw her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls at home, and wanted to create a more realistic and tangible toy that represented what the girls ‘wanted to be’. The other is that Ruth and Harold took a trip to Switzerland, where they saw the German doll ‘Bild Lilli’, which was different to other dolls marketed at the time because it was in adult form.
In 1959, Mattel introduced Barbie, a teenage fashion model, to doubtful toy buyers at the annual Toy Fair in New York. The doll was markedly different to the baby and toddler dolls which were popular at the time, since it had an adult body.
The first Barbie was sold for $3
The first Barbie doll was accompanied by a personal story. Ruth named her Barbie Millicent Roberts, after her daughter Barbara, and said that she came from Willows, Wisconsin and was a teenage fashion model. The first Barbie cost $3 and was an instant success: in its first year, more than 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold.
Barbie was initially either brunette or blonde, but in 1961, a red-headed Barbie was released. A huge range of Barbies have since been released, such as Barbies with over 125 different careers, including president of the United States. In 1980, the first African-American Barbie and Hispanic Barbie were introduced.
To date, over 70 fashion designers have created clothes for Mattel. The best-selling Barbie doll ever was the Totally Hair Barbie of 1992, which featured hair that went to her toes.
Barbie’s measurements prove controversial
Barbie has been accused of having a negative influence over young girls in particular, since if her proportions were applied to a real-life person, she would be an impossibly tiny 36-18-38. More recently, Barbies with different proportions and abilities have been released, including a plus-size Barbie and a Barbie who is a wheelchair user.
Ruth Handler also designed breast prosthetics
In 1970, Ruth Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a modified radical mastectomy as treatment, and then struggled to find a good breast prosthesis. Handler decided to manufacture her own prosthesis, and created a more realistic version of a woman’s breast called ‘Nearly Me’. The invention became popular and was even used by then-first lady Betty Ford.
Following several investigations which yielded fraudulent financial reports, Ruth Handler resigned from Mattel in 1974. She was charged and fined for fraud and false reporting, and was sentenced to pay $57,000 and deliver 2,500 hours of community service as a result.
Ruth died in 2002, aged 85. Her legacy, the famous Barbie doll, shows no sign of waning in popularity.