- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
Barbara Handler Segal has recalled strangers saying to her, “So you’re the Barbie doll!”
At first, she would turn and walk away; later, she learned to just stand and smile.
“It is very strange to have a doll named after you,” Segal has admitted. “Much of me is very proud that my folks invented the doll; I just wish I wasn’t attached to it.”
Californians Ruth and Elliot Handler manufactured dollhouse furniture, which they sold under their company name of Mattel. While successful, the Handlers were always casting about for one special item that would make Mattel an iconic name in the toy world.
In the early 1950s the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara (b. 1941), had enjoyed playing with dolls. Not the run-of-the-mill, cherub-faced, infant variety, but shapely teenage paper dolls that came with fashionable cutout wardrobes.
Ruth told Elliot that Mattel should offer a three-dimensional doll, designed as a young woman and with an appeal to older girls. Elliot opined that the idea would never fly.
On a 1956 trip to Switzerland, however, the Handlers serendipitously found a doll much like the one Ruth had envisioned. “Lilli” was a German adult novelty toy that — unbeknownst to the Handlers — was based on a cartoon character who was, in reality, a prostitute.
Back home the couple spent three years developing a clean-cut counterpart to naughty Lilli, a doll that would proudly bear their daughter’s name.
On Barbie’s “official” birth date — March 9, 1959 — the doll debuted at a New York toy convention. On that day Barbie’s real-life namesake was a shy 17-year-old attending Los Angeles’s Hamilton High School.
First-version Barbie came dressed in a zebra-striped swimsuit and possessed a waterfall of blond or brown hair.
She earned mixed reviews, with some critics grumbling that the voluptuous, long-limbed toy was too expensive ($3 at a time when the hourly minimum wage was $1) and, at 11 ½ inches — the original Lilli size — too small in comparison to traditional dolls.
The main problem, though, was Barbie’s overt sexiness. Sears quickly declared her unfit for their store shelves. However, Barbie quickly flew off everyone else’s shelves and eventually became the bestselling doll in history, with worldwide sales of 1 billion units.
Barbie offered an extensive optional wardrobe and, later, morphed through numerous occupations and ethnicities.
Along the way, feminists often railed against her, labeling Barbie a vacuous bimbo and crying out that her proportional measurements (36-18-33) were unrealistic and potentially unhealthy for impressionable young girls who wanted to emulate her.
In 1961 Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, arrived in stores. In doll form, he was California-beach cool, but the human Ken — named after Barbara’s real-life brother — once admitted, “I was a real nerd. I played the piano and went to movies with subtitles.”
At age 18 Barbara Handler married Allen Segal. They had two children, including a daughter named Cheryl. There’s no doubt that Cheryl Segal was raised with the usual delights of any typically well-off Southern California girl.
Except for one.
Cheryl never owned a Barbie doll.
Although Randal C. Hill's heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.