Today in 1959, the first ever Barbie doll debuted at New York City’s American Toy Fair. The face of American toys would never be quite the same. The Barbie doll is one of the most iconic, and controversial, toys ever to hit the shelves.
The first Barbie stood 11 inches tall and sported Barbie’s signature blonde hairdo. She would go on to be the first ever mass-produced American doll that was manufactured with adult features.
Barbie was originally developed by a woman named Ruth Handler. Handler co-founded Mattel, Inc. in 1945, with her husband. Handler got the idea for Barbie when she observed her daughter favor paper dolls of adult women over baby dolls. In that moment, an entire industry was born: toys that would appeal to children who wanted to fantasize about growing up.
Mattel was already partway to the finish line when Handler had her idea. They had purchased the rights to manufacture Lilli dolls, a sexualized German doll based on a comic strip, that was sold to adult men in tobacco shops.
Mattel repurposed the Lilli doll as “Barbie,” a less-racy version named after Handler’s daughter Barbara.
Mattel was the first company to ever market its goods directly to children on TV, through its sponsorship of the Mickey Mouse Club show in 1955. It was a huge hit. Over the next few years, Barbie exploded in popularity. In 1961, Barbie was so popular that Mattel designed Barbie a boyfriend. The Ken doll was born. Ken was followed by a friend named Midge and a little sister named Skipper.
Barbie made a big cultural splash, and not everyone was enthusiastic about it. The doll attracted a lot of criticism, for encouraging girls to be more materialistic. Barbie’s fictional life was a lavish one, filled with expensive outfits, cars and dream houses. Critics also claimed that Barbie’s physical features were unrealistic and engendered negative body image, a criticism that’s still being aired today.
Barbie’s been around for a long time and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, though. Far from being damaged by the controversy, the doll’s popularity has been pretty unwavering. By 1993, the doll was raking in over a billion dollars every year. They’re still selling – since its debut, over 800 million Barbie-affiliated dolls have been sold.
Barbie will likely continue to be an influential toy, even as we transition into a future where most of the things children play with will be digital.