Patent drawing for Barbie.

26 Oct 2010

Origins: Barbie

by Karen Feridun

Ruth Handler, a breast cancer survivor, was dissatisfied with the prosthetics available after her mastectomy in 1970, so she invented one for herself that was much more realistic. In 1976, her invention hit the mass market under the brand name Nearly Me. It wasn’t Handler’s first invention. Two decades earlier, she had invented a doll for her daughter after noticing that she and her friends were less interested in baby dolls than dolls of adults they could dress up. With realism in mind once again, she created a three-dimensional alternative to the paper dolls and cardboard cutouts on the market at the time and named it after her daughter, Barbara. By the way, her son’s name was Kenneth.

Getting someone to take her invention seriously was surprisingly difficult. In 1945, Handler and her husband, Elliot, had started a picture frame company with a partner, Harold Matson. They called the company Mattel. They started using scraps of wood left over from the frames to make doll furniture. With that, the toy company was born. Matson sold his interest in the company to the Handlers a year later. By the mid-50s, Mattel was a successful toy company, marketing its products directly to children as the sponsor of a 15-minute segment of the Mickey Mouse Club on ABC. Handler took her idea for the doll to her husband and the other board members, but they rejected it. Then, on a trip to Germany, Handler came across a doll based on a cartoon character that was similar to the doll she had in mind, so she bought some of the dolls as samples and went back to the board. They were convinced. The first Barbie was introduced in 1959.  

From the beginning, Barbie has been the source of controversy. In fact, the Lilli doll that served as inspiration for Barbie was controversial in its own right, referred to as a ‘sex toy’ or ‘sex doll’ by its critics. A filler cartoon called Lilli appeared in Hamburg’s Bild-Zeitung newspaper on July 24, 1952. The popularity of the cartoon led the company to make it a regular feature for nearly nine years and to create a doll of the character. The doll wasn’t intended for kids, though. In the comics, Lilli spoke frankly about staying at nightclubs until dawn, seeking out rich men, and enjoying sex. The doll was a novelty sold as a gag gift at bars and tobacco shops. Eventually, however, the doll became popular with children in several European countries and a line of doll clothes and accessories followed.

When Handler returned from Germany with the Lilli doll, she asked Mattel designer, Jack Ryan, to work on a re-design the company could produce. Ryan was a former Raytheon missile engineer and sixth husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor. (She was his second of five wives.) Gabor described Ryan as “a full-blown ‘70s-style swinger into wife swapping and sundry sexual pursuits.” At Mattel, he went on to design Chatty Cathy, but his relationship with the Handlers eventually soured and ended in a lawsuit over unpaid royalties. Ryan and Handler feuded for years about who really invented Barbie. He eventually committed suicide. After his death, Handler continued to insist that she alone had invented the doll.  

In spite of the early slogan, “We girls can do anything”, and the 126 careers that followed, Barbie has often been regarded as a negative role model for young girls. She is the equivalent of a 5’9” woman with the dimensions 36”-18”-33”. A Finnish analysis concluded that a woman with those dimensions would not possess enough body fat to menstruate. To make matters worse, 1965’s Slumber Barbie came with a pink scale reading 110 lbs., along with a book that also accompanied Barbie Baby-Sits in 1963, entitled How to Lose Weight that provided tips like, “Don’t eat.” She has been criticized for more than her appearance, though. Sometimes she doesn’t seem terribly smart. Perhaps it’s the lack of food. In 1992, Teen Talk Barbie was programmed to say, among other things, “Math class is tough!” The American Association of University Women objected. Mattel has been responsive to its critics over the years. Barbie’s waist has been widened. She no longer talks about math class. They may have missed the point, however, if 2008’s Black Canary Barbie is any indication. Based on a comic book character, she is dressed in a leather bodysuit and jacket, fishnets, and high heel leather boots. According to Mattel’s website, the doll was intended for adult collectors and is no longer available. 

A Barbie doll is sold every two seconds somewhere in the 150 countries where it is marketed. To make all those dolls and the many other toys in Mattel’s product line, the company maintains “nine factories in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Mexico. Tooling plants in China and Malaysia support [their] manufacturing operations,” according to the company’s website. The last U.S. factory, a former Fisher-Price plant, closed in 2002. The company also reports that they have 70,000 suppliers, 30 core vendors, and a variety of subcontractors. Unlike some Mattel products, Barbie was never manufactured in the United States. The first Barbie was made in Japan. Manufacturing has followed low-cost labor around East Asia ever since. Mattel currently manufactures Barbie in two factories in China, one in Indonesia, and one in Malaysia.  

In 1996, Rone Tempest, an L.A. Times reporter, investigated the manufacturers and materials behind Barbie. Like many other companies, Mattel would not disclose the information. After considerable digging, he found that Formosa Plastics in Taipei produced the plastic resins used to make Barbie. Formosa gets oil to make its resins from Chinese Petroleum Company, who imports it from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. Barbie’s nylon hair comes from Japan. The cotton fabric used to make her clothing comes from China. The United States supplies paint pigments, molds, and packaging materials. The finished dolls are shipped from Hong Kong. 

Later in 1996, stories by NBC’s Dateline and U.S. News and World Report exposed the deplorable working conditions for the women and children who populated Mattel’s factories. The cover story in January/February 1997 issue of The Humanist was entitled, “Sweatshop Barbie – Exploitation of Third World Labor”. Its author, Anton Foek, visited the Dynamics factory near Bangkok that made Barbie at the time. He spoke with young girls who worked in the factory, many of whom were only a bit older than the girls who played with Barbie in other parts of the world. The long hours they worked only increased their exposure to dust and solvents that caused respiratory problems for 75 percent of the workers there. According to one of the workers, “When we get sick, they throw us out.” The Director of Thailand’s National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Medicine who had started investigating sweatshops in 1991 told Foek that the workers at the Dynamics factory experienced asthma, hair loss, memory loss, constant pain, frequent vomiting, irregular cycles, and fatigue.   

In response to these stories, Mattel developed Global Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and hired Baruch College professor, Dr. S. Prakash Sethi, to form an independent group to help the company implement the GMP and monitor their compliance. The Mattel Independent Monitoring Council for Global Manufacturing Principles (MIMCO) has issued reports on the company’s progress since 1999. While Dr. Sethi is pleased with the company’s progress, other organizations, like the Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC), feel the company has a long way to go. In 2007, the same year that the Mattel sweatshop story was revived after a massive product recall revealed terrible working conditions, the AMRC charged that “Chinese workers are nowhere to be seen; they are excised completely from official texts.” The factory workers were objectified in the MIMCO reports. One gets the same sense from Mattel’s 2009 Global Responsibility Report, Playing Responsibly. Chapter Three, “Our Employees,” goes into great detail about training and development, diversity, communications, and compensation, but the section only refers to Mattel’s corporate employees. The factory workers are discussed in Chapter Two, “Our Toys.” The AMRC does credit Mattel with making its reports public, no matter how poorly they reflect on the company.        

Barbie’s early careers included teenage fashion model, fashion editor, ballerina, and career girl. Her latest careers are computer engineer and anchorwoman. Remember when Barbie was having trouble with math in 1992? That year, one of Barbie’s careers was presidential candidate. Barbie’s effect on a girl’s psychology will probably always be a matter of debate. For Ruth Handler, however, it was simple. In an interview about her Nearly Me prosthetics, she put it this way, “When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs.”  

Next time, Martin Guitars.


Nearly Me company website

Barbie (Wikipedia Entry)

Barbie Doll, The Great Idea Finder

Mattel, Inc.,

Bild Lilli Doll (Wikipedia Entry)

The curse of Barbie: How the world's most famous toy destroyed the sordid lives of her two creators, Geoffrey Wansell, Mail Online, March 10, 2009

Happy 50th Barbie, You Crazy Killing Machine You!, Steve Steinbach,, March 9, 2009  

Jack Ryan (Wikipedia Entry)

Tracking Snowclones is Hard. Let’s Go Shopping! Language Log, March 2, 2006 

The Quick Ten: Happy Birthday, Barbie!, Stacy Conradt, Mental Floss, March 4, 2009

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Mattel to Close Last U.S. Manufacturing Plant, Retail Merchandiser, April 6, 2001

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Barbie Sweatshops, Christina Chiarello, IHS Child Slave Labor, November 2005

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Mattel’s Read Toy Story: Slave Labour in Sweatshops, Eric Clark, Mail Online, August 16, 2007

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Barbie Patent Drawing, Think Pink Barbie Museum