Who was Ruth Handler, inventor of the Barbie doll?

Barbie — and the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler — are both having a moment.

The company Handler co-created, Mattel, and the toys it manufactured are all household names, but Ruth’s story isn’t as well known. Born in Denver in 1916, Ruth was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. She met her husband, Elliot Handler, in high school, and the couple moved to Los Angeles after marrying in 1938.

Skip advert

The Handlers didn’t start off by making toys, but rather furniture. Elliot used lucite and Plexiglas to create furnishings for their home, and Ruth suggested he turn this hobby into a business. She went out and sold the pieces, and landed lucrative deals with major clients like Douglas Aircraft. In 1945, the Handlers partnered with Harold “Matt” Matson to form Mattel, and started making dollhouse furniture, music boxes and the Uke-A-Doodle, a type of instrument similar to the ukulele.

By focusing on interactive products and smart marketing, the Handlers were the “first toy industry entrepreneurs to transform their company, consciously and systemically, into a professional operation,” Sydney Stern and Ted Schoenhaus wrote in their 1990 book “Toyland.”

A cultural phenomenon is born

Mattel was successful, but the company was launched into another stratosphere when it introduced the Barbie doll in 1959. Ruth’s inspiration for Barbie came after a family trip to Switzerland, where her daughter, Barbara, became enthralled by the Bild Lilli doll. “It was an adult, figurative doll, sort of a sculptural thing, I guess,” Barbara told The New York Times in 2002. “I was going crazy because I wanted different clothes for it, and they didn’t sell the clothes separate. You had to buy a different doll every time you wanted a different outfit.”

Skip advertSkip advert

The U.S. market was filled with baby dolls and paper dolls, and Ruth worked with Mattel’s designers to ensure that their creation, Barbie, was something completely different: “a teenage doll with a tiny waist, slender hips and impressive bust,” as the Los Angeles Times described it. When Barbie made her debut at the 1959 American Toy Fair, clad in a now-iconic black-and-white striped bathing suit, it was a hit. A Barbie cost $3, and more than 350,000 were sold in the first year. “The minute that doll hit the counter, she walked right off,” Ruth said.

Skip advert

Ruth made sure that unlike Lilli, Barbie had plenty of outfits and accessories that could be purchased separately. Over time, the Barbie universe expanded, as new dolls like Ken (named after the Handlers’ son) and Skipper were introduced and Barbie tried new professions, including astronaut and veterinarian. Any criticism of Barbie rolled off Ruth’s back, and she disagreed with those who said the doll perpetuated unrealistic standards for women. In her 1994 memoir “Dream Doll,” Ruth explained that her “whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Moving on from Mattel

In 1970, Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Barbara told The New York Times that her mother “wasn’t satisfied with what was out there when she went to get a prosthesis,” and found the salespeople rude and the product unsatisfactory. This led her to a new business venture: Nearly Me, a breast-prosthetic company.

Later that decade, Mattel found itself under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission over claims of accounting irregularities inside the company. Ruth was eventually indicted on charges of false reporting and fraud, and after pleading no contest, was sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service and paid a $57,000 fine. She maintained her innocence and said her battle with cancer took away her focus. “I was never able to get back in and grab hold of things as I should have,” Ruth told USA Today in 1994.

Skip advert

In the wake of the investigation, the Handlers were ousted from Mattel, and Ruth focused on Nearly Me and spreading awareness about the importance of regular mammograms. She died in 2002 of complications following colon surgery, at age 85.

In the new “Barbie” movie, Ruth is played by Rhea Perlman, who has a small but pivotal role and delivers one of the film’s most poignant lines. It was a fitting tribute to the real Ruth, who was “a pioneer of her time, for sure,” her daughter said in a 2017 interview with the Branded Content Marketing Association. “She was always for the women to be successful and strong. And she was a strong person.”

Skip advert


Share This Post

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.