Who invented the Barbie doll and why?

From Gold Digger to Money Maker: The Creation of Barbie

Ruth Handler's Barbie became the most popular doll in the world.
Ruth Handler's Barbie became the most popular doll in the world.
Ian Waldie/Getty Images

By the time Ruth Handler encountered the Lilli doll on her vacation in Switzerland, the toy company that she and her husband founded -- Mattel -- had started turning a profit. As Mattel grew at the turn of the century, the United States entered the post-World War II economic boom that fueled widespread consumerism. For the first time, moms and dads weren't the only shoppers who advertisers targeted. Thanks to television and the launch of the Mickey Mouse Show in 1955, children became a new market and source of revenue [source: Lord]. If youngsters saw a new toy on television, they'd nag their parents into buying it for them. The Handlers seized upon this novel opportunity as a chance to expand Mattel's stake in the toy industry.

Ruth Handler planned to tap into that emerging kid consumerism with the extra Lilli doll she brought back stateside. With Lilli as her muse, Handler convinced her husband and the all-male design team at Mattel to follow her lead in filling the empty market niche for a more mature female doll. Mattel began crafting Handler's dream doll by 1957. They kept Lilli's general figure but scrubbed off some of her makeup, relaxed her smile and used soft vinyl instead of hard plastic to construct her.

Fashion designer Charlotte Johnson was hired to create a tasteful, yet chic, wardrobe for Mattel's new doll. This was where maintaining Lilli's extreme hourglass shape was a necessity. Johnson was working with the same types of thick fabrics that were used in garment-making, so the doll had to have an unrealistically narrow waist and large bust; otherwise, the relative thickness of the garments would bulk up the doll and make it appear shapeless [source: Rand].

The 11.5-inch (29-centimeter) final product that debuted at the 1959 New York Toy Fair didn't look drastically different from Lilli. Sporting a black-and-white-striped swimsuit, open-toed stilettos and gold hoop earrings, it had Lilli's racy curves but a more demure style. Named in honor of Handler's daughter, Barbara, Mattel called the new doll Barbie.

Everyone knows the rest of Barbie's history: She made scores of friends and became the most popular toy in history. But Barbie didn't receive a warm welcome at the New York Toy Fair. And before she hit the stores, Mattel had to figure out how to sell such a womanly doll to wary mothers.