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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY

Introducing… the Barbie Doll

At the International American Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959, inventor Ruth Mosko Handler unveiled one of the most loved, emulated, and criticized toys of the 20th century. The Barbie Doll, named after Handler’s 15-year-old daughter, and modeled after a sex toy called Lilli, which Handler had seen on a trip to Germany, rocketed the Mattel company to nearly overnight success and became an icon of American culture.

Although Barbie has been roundly condemned by feminists as promoting an unrealistic body shape to young girls, Handler originally conceived the doll as a way for girls to imagine their futures as adult women. “I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem,” she later said, “to play with a doll that has breasts.”

After the runaway success of Barbie, the company added Ken, named after Handler’s son, and later additional dolls named for Handler’s grandchildren. Professional outfits and ethnic Barbies have updated the original.

After losing a breast to cancer in 1970, and leaving Mattel in 1975, Handler turned her attention to helping other breast cancer survivors. Unhappy with the available breast prostheses, she invented her own, which she sold through a new company called Nearly Me.

Handler received numerous awards for her accomplishments. The Los Angeles Times named her “Woman of the Year” in Business in 1967, the United Jewish Appeal named her its first “Woman of Distinction,” and the Toy Industry Hall of Fame inducted her in 1985.

Ruth Mosko Handler died in 2002. With more than 100 million sold annually, Barbie lives on.

Sources: Ruth Mosko Handler, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story (Stamford, CT, 1994).

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