HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Barbie: The Early History
© 2000, Erica Wolf

NB: For copyright reasons, the illustrations that accompanied the original paper version of this essay have not been reproduced.

Barbie, at the age of 41, is one of the longest living toys in America. Analyzing her early history can give a person a look into the societal trends and culture of the late 1950's and early 1960's. There is evidence of fashion innovations in Barbie's wardrobe. Also, one can see the perception of females by society, such as what they should look like, how they should act and dress, as well as what their future goals could be. The following essay follows Barbie's history from 1959 to 1963, covering her development, her appeal to children, and her existence as a cultural artifact of the time period.

History: Barbie's Debut in 1959

In February of 1959, Barbie was first introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York (Barbie Dolls). Her creators, Ruth and Elliot Handler (co-founders of Mattel) modeled Barbie after the German doll known as Lilli. Lilli began as a cartoon character in a daily newspaper called the Bild-Zeitung (BillyBoy 19). This character, known for her large breasts and sexy clothing, was created for adult entertainment "a symbol of sex and pornography for the men of Germany" (Johnson "History"). Handler discovered Lilli while shopping in Switzerland and brought the doll home for her daughter to play with.

Ruth was inspired to create an adult doll for little girls. Handler had Jack Ryan, executive of Mattel, purchase the rights for Lilli and negotiate with a company from Tokyo to create a doll like Lilli. The reason for going overseas was in order to create an inexpensive new doll. American male designers told Handler that it would be impossible to make such a doll (with stylish clothing and accessories) for an affordable price. The new doll had a softer look created by the "rotation-molding" process used in the making of the vinyl body (Johnson "History"). In addition to a different body, Bud Westmore, the "make-up czar" at Universal Pictures, gave Lilli a makeover (Lord 32). He discarded her "bee-stung lips, heavy eyelashes, and widow's peek eyebrows" (Lord 32). Following these improvements, Ryan modified the doll's joints.

Finally in 1958, Barbie Millicent Roberts was born 11 1/2 inches tall and weighing 11 ounces. She debuted as a teenage model in a black and white striped swimsuit that came with sunglasses, high-heeled shoes, and gold-colored hoop earrings (see Figure 1). Her body was shapely with movable head, arms, and legs. Barbie was the first doll in America with an adult body.

America's Reaction

Ruth Handler realized that pretending about the future was a part of the growing up process. While she watched her daughter, Barbara (who Barbie is named after), playing with paper dolls, Handler formulated the idea of creating an adult doll. This was not necessarily a new idea because there were adult fashion dolls, such as Cissy and Miss Revlon, which were on the market. The phenomenon behind Barbie was that she was an affordable toy that had those same grown up accessories as the other adult dolls.

As soon as Barbie was introduced to the public, her mature body horrified many adult females. Mothers said they would not allow their child to play with Barbie because they were wary of her sex appeal. Mattel conducted a study with mothers and daughters before they introduced Barbie. Barbie's sexy clothing disgusted many of the women. One mother said, "I wouldn't walk around the house like that. I don't like that influence on my little girl. If only they would let children remain young a little longer....It's hard enough to raise a lady these days without undue moral pressures" (Lord 39). Another woman felt Barbie had too much of a figure; she was quoted as saying "I'd call them daddy dolls - they are so sexy. They could be a cute decoration for a man's bar" (Lord 39). Aside from the strong objections from parents, Mattel knew that young girls would go for Barbie in a big way. Soon with Mattel's clever marketing department, they over road the cries of mothers across the country by targeting a new consumer: children.

A New Consumer Market

Because of the introduction of the television in the 1950's, companies discovered a new consumer audience among children and teenagers. Barbie couldn't have invaded American households at a more opportune time. Besides the beginning of TV as an advertising medium, a group of American citizens, known as "teenagers," were coming into their own. The post-war era saw a strong economy benefiting the middle class suburban families. Before advertisers targeted children, selling toys had been a "mom and pop business with a seasonal focus on Christmas" (Lord 21). Now, buying toys became a year round business. Children finally had their own spending money and didn't have to rely on their parents to purchase the things they desired.

Part of Barbie's appeal was the fact that she was different than any other doll on the market. In the 1950's, the large majority of toys for little girls were baby dolls. Such dolls as Betsy Wetsy and Chatty Cathy were designed to teach young females the skills required for being a mother. A doll similar to Barbie was named Ginny. She was "pot-bellied, flat-chested, and pug-nosed" certainly not as attractive as Barbie's shapely figure (Johnson "Evaluation"). The original ad in the Mattel catalogue read, "New for '59 the Barbie doll: A shapely teenage fashion model. An exciting all-new kind of doll (She's grown up!)" (BillyBoy 18).

Barbie was intended to be "a model of bubbly teenage innocence" (Weiss "Toys Were Us"). She "projected every little girl's dream of the future" while teaching females about independence (Weiss "Toys Were Us"). She allowed children to relate their child-sized hopes and dreams to the adult world. Barbie represented all that a woman could be and more; she was famous, wealthy, and popular.

Mattel marketers capitalized on the current trends of American society. They developed a team to study cultural patterns, especially among suburban teenagers. This was a technique used in order to present Barbie as a role model. Through Barbie, aspects of suburban life and femininity were reflected for young girls (Riddick "Introduction"). Suburban lifestyles involved consumption of numerous goods and luxury items. Barbie emulated these ideals by always having the newest cars, clothes, and accessories. Mattel has been able to "correctly assess what it means to a little girl to be a grown-up" (Riddick "Introduction").

Barbie made her first television appearance on the Mickey Mouse Club, which was a popular show among kids. Such ads as this and other marketing techniques helped to sell 351,000 Barbies in her first year, making a new sales record. This is an example of how much influence children can have over their parents' wallets. A new target audience among young children had been born.

Barbie as a Reflection of the 1950's Culture

The initial emphasis was on Barbie's appearance, which reflected American society's attitude toward women. Barbie was used as a "teaching tool for femininity" (Dembner "35 and Still a Doll"). As the ideal western woman with long legs and arms, a small waist, and high round chest, Barbie represented every little girl's dream of the perfect mature body. Although there was a controversy (and still remains) over Barbie's breasts, Ruth Handler stated "Barbie was originally created to project every little girl's dream of the future and that dream (in 1959) included a mature figure" (BillyBoy 22). Also, Barbie had freckle and blemish free skin with just the proper amount of make-up on.

Other clues to 1950's American society can be seen on her original box and in the fashion booklet that accompanied her. The box is covered in haute-couture style drawings making Barbie a very fashionable figure. The cover of the booklet (as seen in Figure 2) is of Barbie's profile. Her side-ways glancing look was set against a pink background creating an air of "remarkable sophistication" (BillyBoy 18). Also, her "bright blond ponytail and saucy red lips suggested Americana and youth" (BillyBoy 18). Since slumber parties were popular among teenage girls in the late 50's, the first page of the booklet shows Barbie in dreamy, fluffy sleepwear. The next outfits pertained to hygiene and homemaking, two important skills taught to teenagers. Barbie has a pleasant attitude toward cleanliness portraying it as a cheerful experience. Barbie is seen in a Bar-B-Q outfit showing the homemaking skills required for being a good wife.

Aside from the outer garments, Barbie also wore undergarments that symbolized adulthood. She had a girdle, which was a necessary garment to encourage good posture in women. Barbie's first wardrobe also included two strap-less bras, one half slip, and one floral petticoat (Johnson "History"). All private and embarrassing questions about growing up could be answered by dressing Barbie.

Other outfits of Barbie reflected American tradition and attitudes toward females. A popular outfit of the first Barbie was the wedding dress. In the 50's, marriage was a sacred institution viewed as a necessary step in adulthood. She also owned clothing for safe recreational activities such as playing tennis and dancing ballet. These were accepted sports for women to participate in.

Fashion developments of the 1950's appeared in Barbie's wardrobes. Mattel used the latest fabric innovations such as nylon tricot, nylon tulle, sheer nylon, and nylon net, as materials for Barbie's clothing (BillyBoy 27). As women were purchasing tights, Barbie was given her first pair in 1961 to keep up with current feminine trends.

Mattel feared that Barbie's image was too perfect so they decided to create a more personal side of Barbie making her appear more like a real person. Society's emphasis was on a strong nuclear family, therefore in the 60's Barbie's parents were identified as Robert and Margareth Roberts from Willows, Wisconsin (Kehoe "Barbie"). Along with parents, Mattel developed a boyfriend and female friend for Barbie. Ken, named after the Handler's son, was introduced in 1961, and Midge, Barbie's freckle faced friend, debuted in 1963 (See Figures 4 and 5).

Because of Barbie's lack of a family, her first relation was a male companion named Ken. The first advertisement for Ken said, "He's a doll!" (BillyBoy 40). Barbie's boyfriend was given an image of "innocence, cleanliness, extroverted playfulness, boyish masculinity, and a hint of shyness" (BillyBoy 40). To accompany this image, Ken came with teenage male essentials, such as a letter sweater, tuxedo, and a gray flannel suit. One of the biggest questions facing Mattel was how anatomically correct should Ken be. They finally determined that young girls did not need to be exposed to some realities of adulthood; therefore Ken was born with permanent underwear.

Ken's development portrays one of the expectations of 1950's women. It was necessary to create Ken because "women were considered failures without male companionship" (Johnson "Barbie's Effects on American Suburban Culture").

All propaganda involving Barbie and Ken portray them as the stereotypical teenage couple. The first television commercial for Ken takes place at a ball. Amid this romantic scene, Barbie spots Ken, and it's love at first sight. All of the ads for Barbie and her "handsome steady" are a reflection of the innocent qualities of courtship (Weiss "Toys Were Us"). Ken and Barbie had coordinating outfits for the "beach, fraternity dances, after-school sodas, etc" (BillyBoy 41). A magazine about Barbie and Ken's adventures was published. Barbie and Ken were seen as being so much in love that they could not go anywhere without each other (as seen in Figure 3). After Barbie helps Ken in the garden, she says, "I'd do it any time Ken, just so long as we're together" (BillyBoy 42). Compared to modern culture, this is an extremely cordial and sappy relationship. The Barbie and Ken comic book furthers the portrayal of male and female relations of the early 1960's before the hippie culture invaded.

In 1961, Mattel produced a record of songs about Ken performed by Barbie. Through this music, girls could learn about proper social manners when dating. Evident in the lyrics are the games girls would play, such as coyness and aloofness, in teenage relations. This record also reinforced Barbie as a realistic character helping to shape her personality (BillyBoy 44).

To counter Barbie's perfection, Mattel introduced Midge Hadley, Barbie's best friend. Midge was seen as more approachable than Barbie was because she was less glamorous and less intimidating. Midge had Barbie's body but a wider, friendly face covered in freckles. Her look was intended to be "thoughtful" (Weiss "Toys Were Us").

Continuing to soften Barbie's image, Mattel gave her a face-lift in 1961. The plastic surgery consisted of curved eyebrows and blue eyes. As Barbie is known for keeping up with the latest styles, she received a bubble hairstyle similar to the one worn by Jackie Kennedy (Weiss "Toys Were Us").

Aside from the above restraints placed on Barbie, she did have one quality that broke her away from the traditional female mold. Barbie was independent and showed little girls that they could be anything they could imagine. Through Barbie, all their dreams of adulthood could come true. Mattel used this as a marketing technique, and it has stood the test of time.

Barbie as an Enduring Icon

Barbie's link to success is her ability to change with the times. She evolved from model, to career woman, to president! With five facelifts, Barbie has been able to maintain her status as "the most popular fashion doll ever created" ("The Barbie Doll Story"). The talented staff at Mattel researches societal trends to keep Barbie current. "Whatever is in the pre-teen section of local department stores is likely to be on the Barbie shelves in toy stores" (Riddick "Introduction"). Barbie's popularity has held steady for over four decades and is likely to continue for more years to come.


The Barbie Doll Story. 1999. (29 Feb. 2000)

BillyBoy. Barbie Her Life and Times. New York: Crown Publishers, 1987.

Dembner, Alice. "35 and Still a Doll." The Boston Globe. 9 March 1994. (23 April 2000)

The History Channel. Barbie Dolls. (22 Feb. 2000)

Hold, Patricia. "Hail Barbie, Icon of Female Culture." The San Francisco Chronicle. 13 Dec. 1994. (23 April 2000)

Johnson, Kristi. The Barbie Doll as an Artifact of Suburbia. (6 March 2000)

Johnson, Kristi. Barbie's Effects on American Suburban Culture. (6 March 2000)

Johnson, Kristi. Evaluation. (7 March 2000)

Johnson, Kristi. History. (6 March 2000)

Kehoe, John. "Barbie." Biography 2.12 Dec. 1998. (28 Feb. 2000)

Lord, M.G. Forever Barbie. William Morrow and Co.: New York, 1994.

Origin of Barbie. (6 March 2000)

Riddick, Kristin. Introduction. (6 March 2000)

Weiss, Michael. Toys Were Us. (7 March 2000)

40 Years with Barbie. (29 Feb. 2000)

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