By Belem Ramos
From left, Cherity and Amanda Pierce display their Barbie collection. Photo by Sandra Pierce.
Flashy clothes, the perfect boyfriend, a Corvette, Ferrari, full size apartment with beautiful furniture and a boat. She's the woman who has everything and every year receives more. Since her introduction in 1959, the Barbie doll may be the most influential icon of American culture in the late twentieth century.
Barbie's success may be attributed to the focus on children as consumers for the first time. She attracted little girls because of her adult-like features. Before this, children looked at toys like Yogi Bear, Howdy Doody, and baby dolls for inspiration. With the creation of Barbie, girls now had a new toy to stimulate their imaginations.
In the 1950s most women stayed at home, cooking, cleaning and caring for their children; they didn't parade around in tight little skirts and high heels. The Barbie doll represented independence and glamour: she could sing solos in the spotlight one minute and pilot an airplane the next. She was exciting and completely different from the clinging Betsy Westsys and Chatty Cathys that little girls were used to.
In Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, M. G. Lord tells the story of Barbie's creators. Ruth Handler, the youngest of ten siblings, worked as a stenographer for Paramount Pictures as a young woman. Her husband Elliott designed light fixtures and studied art.
In 1937, they had moved from Colorado to California where they gambled their life savings on a plan to build Plexiglas furniture. The Handlers began the factory in their garage but quickly expanded until they had hired a hundred workers who made jewelry and decorative items. World War II shortages of labor soon put them out of business.
Despite their first failure, the Handlers didn't give up and, in 1945, they joined with Harold Matson, a former worker, and together the three started "Mattel Creations". Matson's last name along with Elliot's was fused together to form the name Mattel.
In 1946, Matson sold out his share. The Handlers were not discouraged, though, because of their strong belief in futuristic materials such as Plexiglas, Lucite and plastic. They continued looking for the perfect item to make their company a success. Little did they know that their persistence would lead them to establish a multi-million company initiated by the revolutionary Barbie doll.
Ruth Handler first encountered the model for Barbie in 1955 while vacationing in Switzerland with her family. The Lilli doll, a comic character from Germany, was usually found in tobacco stores as a three dimensional pinup. Lord quotes Ruth Handler as saying, "We were walking down the street in Lucerne and there was a doll … and adult doll with a woman's body … sitting on a rope swing. The doll had an adult shaped body, the thing that I had been trying to describe for years, and our guys said it couldn't be done." Ruth brought back two dolls, one for her daughter Barbara, and one for herself.
A second contributing factor to the realization of this doll evolved from Ruth watching her daughter and friends play with paper dolls. Handler recalls: "Through their play Barbara imagined their lives as adults. They used the dolls to reflect the adult world around them. They would sit and carry on conversations, making the dolls real people. I thought if only we could take this play pattern and three dimensionalize it, we would have something very special."
The actual making of dolls was very complex. They were made in a Japanese company called Kokuasai Boiki Kaisha (KBK). KBK bid for and received the opportunity to manufacture the doll out of injected-molding vinyl. And so Barbie - the All-American doll- was born in Tokyo because it would cost a fortune to manufacture a doll with such detail anywhere else.
Charlotte Johnson, a fashion designer who had been...