History of the Barbie Doll

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

In this lesson, you'll learn the history of the famous Barbie doll. This lesson will highlight the inspiration for Barbie, how the doll developed over time, and its enduring success in the 21st Century.

An American Icon

A Modern Day Barbie Doll
Barbie Doll

When it comes to American dolls for girls, no one tops Barbie for fame and longevity. Chances are that you or a relative, even someone as old as your grandmother, remember seeing television advertising for a Barbie doll, usually depicting happy young girls playing with Barbie dolls. Of course, Barbie was almost never the same, not only sporting different outfits but also different jobs. She could be a fashion model, a singer, an astronaut, a surgeon, a police officer, even a presidential candidate! Barbie's ability to change with the times has made her last for over fifty years and counting, though not without some controversy along the way.

Origins of Barbie

Early Barbie Dolls
Vintage Barbies

In 1956, Ruth Handler, the wife of the co-founder of the Mattel toy company, encountered a German doll in Europe called Bild Lilli. Lilli was an adult female doll that children liked to play with by dressing her up in small cloth outfits sold separately. Handler took some of the dolls back to the United States, then redesigned Lilli into Barbie, named for Handler's daughter. The new doll, named 'Barbie Millicent Roberts,' debuted on March 9, 1959. Mattel made effective use of television advertising to promote Barbie. Instead of portraying Barbie as a doll, the television commercials depicted Barbie as a teenage model, showing events that gave her reasons to change into different outfits. Not only was Mattel an early pioneer of using television advertising to sell toys, but their advertising of Barbie was also an instance of presenting their product as a personality.

Barbie and her Friends

What made Barbie different from other dolls for girls in this era is that Barbie was a grown-up figure. Most other dolls were babies that girls could pretend to mother, but with Barbie, they could fantasize about being teenagers or adults. One of Barbie's outfits, a wedding gown, inspired the need to create a groom or at least a love interest. So in 1961, Mattel created the doll Ken. Mattel would later create more dolls to add to Barbie's circle of family and friends, including Skipper, Barbie's younger sister, and Francie, a cousin. Barbie would also receive African American friends with the Christie and Julia dolls in 1969.

Early Barbie and Ken
Early Barbie and Ken

Still, by 1963, Barbie began to look dated. The doll's style was inspired by the fashions and culture of the 1940 and 1950s. Her expression could read as severe, drawing from movie stars of the time like Joan Crawford. Mattel updated Barbie's look with tanned skin, a new swimsuit, and a softer expression. Barbie also came with a waist that could twist around and form more poses. Over the years, Mattel would adjust Barbie's fashion and looks to keep up with the times.


Other toy companies have tried to create dolls to compete with Barbie, but none have succeeded in topping Barbie's appeal. Some dolls were simply likenesses of popular stars at the time, like Farrah Fawcett and Cher. One of the most well known competitors was a doll made by the toy company Hasbro in 1986. This doll was called Jem, a female pop singer with her own rock band. Around the same time, Mattel developed a line of dolls called Barbie and the Rockers, with Barbie as a pop/rock singer. Thanks to Mattel's marketing muscle, they outsold Jem, and before long Jem was off the market. In more recent years, Barbie has faced harder competition from the Bratz doll line, Disney's Princesses, and Monster High dolls, with Mattel even suffering drops in Barbie sales.


Barbie dolls at Wal-Mart in 2014
Barbie at Wal-Mart

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