Happy Birthday, Barbie
It is one thing when that cute kid next door who you saw come home as a newborn has a kid of his own to make you feel old. But that’s nothing compared to BARBIE™ TURNING 50. She’s eligible for AARP membership. (We all would like to get the name of her plastic surgeon. Wait, she is plastic.)
Beloved and coveted by so many little and not so little girls—the average age of female collectors is 40—the beauteous and curvaceous Barbie was born March 9, 1959. That was the day she was first introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York.
She was conceived, so to speak, a few years earlier. Paper dolls had been popular for a long time. In the 19th century, you had your Dottie Dimple and Jessie Jingle. McCall’s magazine had Betsy McCall. In the 1950s, you cut out clothes and dressed actresses June Allyson and Jane Powell.
Ruth Handler, co-founder of the Mattel toy company, saw her daughter eschewing baby dolls in favor of the grownup paper cutouts, and that got Handler thinking. Maybe the toy world was ready for something different. Touring Europe in 1956, the eureka light bulb went on in Handler’s head when she saw Bild Lilli, a curvy, bosomy doll based on a comic-strip character.
Back in the States, she and engineer Jack Ryan designed a similar adult-looking toy, named it Barbie after Handler’s daughter, Barbara, and voilà, history was made.
1959 Barbies on exhibit in Prague
The popularity of Barbie and company—boyfriend Ken, girlfriends Midge, Stacy, Cara, Lea, the list goes on and on and includes many, many pets—is staggering. According to Mattel, more than a billion Barbies have been sold in some 150 countries at the rate of three per second.
What accounts for this success? Barbie Worthologist Melissa Musselman says, “Barbie was about being popular, about being glamorous. Girls pretended to be that doll with all the fun clothes, the cars, friends, boyfriend and roles to play.”
Early Barbie and Ken shown at a Washington state museum. Photo by Joe Mabel.
1961 Barbie and Ken fashion booklet
To get details on the fashion booklet, visit GoAntiques.
That has translated today into tens of thousands of Barbie collectors.
Shari Caudron, author of “Who Are You People?” (Barricade Books), wrote about attending a Barbie convention and being mystified by the fervor and delight the collectors took in the doll. Then she saw a vintage Barbie, the first— Teenage Fashion Model—and got excited because she remembered her sisters playing with one.
“Oddly,” Caudron related, “I find myself a little thrilled to recognize the doll. I confess this to Sandi [Holder, owner of the Doll Attic]. She laughs. ‘That’s what Barbie is all about,’ she says. ‘It’s about reliving good memories and helping people get back a bit of their childhood.’”
She's in the Army Barbie
Inside Barbie's Friend Ship
If you’re interested in learning about this Army Barbie, click here and here for Barbie’s Friend Ship.
And there are A LOT of different Barbies to collect. Over the years, this has not been a gal afraid of changing professions. Barbie surgeon, career girl, art teacher, aerobics instructor, NASCAR driver, 1976 Olympics gold medalist in gymnastics (which probably came as a surprise to Nadia Comaneci, who took three golds, and Nellie Kim, who won two), Barbie in the army. Why, there was an Astronaut Barbie four years before Neil Armstrong took that one small step for man on the moon. And she’s run for president three times—take that Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Barbie’s platform? World peace, aiding the impoverished and homeless, and caring for animals. That could have been her answers in the Miss America pageant, which she apparently won in 1974.)
All the many incarnations of Barbie over the years, of course, came with numerous accessories and outfits—all the better for collectors.
1968 party outfit
Vintage Barbie straw bag
Vintage Barbie Ballerina tutu
For more information on the party outfit, click here. On the vintage handbag, click here, and the tutu, here.
Despite all the doll’s wonderful attributes, Barbie has not been controversy free. That first swim-suited fashion model had measurements the equivalent of 39-18-33. (Two actresses who came close to those proportions were Jayne Mansfield (40-21-36) and Sophia Loren (38-24-38), though both were obviously a lot hippier.) Some people felt Barbie’s figure gave little girls an unrealistic ideal. She eventually got a little wider around the waist and not quite as big across the chest.
Then there was book that accompanied Slumber Party Barbie—“How to Lose Weight.” “Don’t eat” was the answer. Oops.
And what could Mattel have been thinking when it came out with Oreo Fun Barbie? There were Caucasian and black versions. In Mattel’s defense, this was a promotion with Nabisco. Still, it didn’t go over well in the black community because Oreo was an unflattering term used to describe someone “black on the outside and white on the inside.”
Then there was the pregnant Midge with a little removable pouch that contained newborn Nikki. Despite Midge being married, there was enough of an uproar that Wal-Mart discontinued selling it.
1988 Cool Times Midge
Cool Midge can be found on GoAntiques.
Of course, some of the criticism has bordered on just plain silly. A researcher in Finland, with nothing better to do, calculated that Barbie did not have enough body fat to menstruate. Get a grip. Barbie is a toy.
As one enthusiast said to Shari Caudron, “Anything that allows us to play is a good thing, and I don’t know why people are so critical of Barbie sometimes. I mean, I can’t believe it when people say Barbie is bad for a girl’s self-image. That’s ridiculous. It’s a doll. Kids know that. It’s adults that make Barbie a problem. In the 1960s, America was barely in space, and there was already an Astronaut Barbie. How can that be bad for kids?”
1971 Malibu Barbie
A newer version of Malibu Barbie comes with sunblock. Click here to find out more about 1971 Barbie.
Whatever your opinion of America’s perkiest and leggiest sweetheart, there’s no denying she’s brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. To celebrate her Big Five-0, from March 9 to 14, Mattel is selling a “throwback” Barbie in her original zebra-print swimsuit at the 1959 price of three bucks. And it’s throwing a Barbie bash in a 3,500-square-foot, human-size Barbie Malibu Dream House. Among other festivities will be the Barbie Beauty Pageant at the SideBAR in New York. Contestants will dress up as their favorite Barbie and prance along the bar.
An artist's depiction of a naturally aged 50-year-old Barbie
So here’s looking at you, Babs. Many happy returns.
Sandra Lee Stuart led a deprived childhood without a single Barbie doll, which may be why she can’t accessorize to this day.
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