In the 1950’s, homemaker Ruth Handler was having trouble finding toys to satisfy her daughter.
The little girl, Barbara, was growing displeased with her paper dolls, wanting to give the infant facades more grown up roles as she herself aged.
Handler sought a doll that would appeal to her now pre-teen daughter. But none were on the market.
Just a few short years later, however, Barbie would be a household name.
While on a trip to Europe, Handler came across a German doll called Bild Lilli, a toy made from a popular comic strip.
The doll was made with adult features and came with stylish outfits, the exact thing Handler had been looking for—she purchased three Lilli dolls, one for her daughter, and two to take to her husband and his business partner.
Handler’s husband was Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel. Handler pitched the idea of a fashion-forward doll for little girls and, though not entirely sold on the idea, Elliot and his partner Harold Matson agreed to go ahead with the project.
Handler, the daughter of Jewish-Polish immigrants, entered the business world for the first time.
The first version of the doll was debuted March 9, 1959, and was christened Barbie, after the Handlers’ daughter (the Ken doll, who came later, was named after their son). Barbie came in two versions—blond or brunette—and wore the now iconic black and white striped swimsuit.
During the first year of production, 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold. In 1964, Mattel acquired the rights to the German Lilli doll, and all production of that toy ceased. Over the next few decades, Barbie grew in popularity and variety, taking on a slew of personalities from astronaut to veterinarian.
Today, the Barbie brand encompasses dozens of different characters, hundreds of synergetic toys, accessories, games and videos, and is sold in countries around the world. Mattel reports that globally, three Barbies are sold every second.
Ruth Handler went on to secure her own spot in Jewish business history. Following the success of Barbie, she founded Ruthon Corp, a company that manufactured realistic breast prosthetics for women who had undergone mastectomies.