Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot, founded the toy company Mattel, Inc in 1945. Fourteen years later, Ruth would introduce Barbie Millicent Roberts, better known as “Barbie” to the world.
Inspired by watching her daughter play with make-believe paper dolls of adult women, Handler realized there was an important niche in the market for a toy that allowed little girls to imagine the future. Barbie’s appearance was modeled after a doll named the Bild Lilli, which had been inspired by a German comic-strip character. Originally marketed as a racy gag gift that men could buy in tobacco shops, the Lilli doll later became extremely popular with children. Mattel bought the rights to Lilli, and Handler created her own version. Take a look at Barbie’s cultural revolution through the years.
1. The first Barbie doll goes on display at the American Toy Fair in New York City
Barbie’s official birthday is March 9, 1959—the day she was officially introduced to the world. Handler always saw Barbie as a reflection of the times, with the first doll mimicking the glamour of 1950s stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. In its first year, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold. The first Barbie doll sold for $3.00, but a mint condition #1 doll can fetch more than $25,000 today.
2. Barbie’s Impressive Resume
Over the span of her existence, Barbie has had over 200 careers. She broke the plastic ceiling when she went to the moon in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong. Since then, she has been everything from a doctor to a paleontologist to a rock star to a computer engineer.
3. The Year of Ken
Barbie’s on-again, off-again longtime boyfriend, Ken Carson, was introduced two years after Barbie in 1961. Ken was named after Ruth Handler’s son.
4. Barbie’s Friends & Family
To counteract criticisms that Barbie was solely a sex symbol, in 1963 Barbie’s best friend Midge Hadley was introduced. A year later, Barbie’s first little sister was announced, Skipper Roberts.
5. First Celebrity Barbie
In 1967, Supermodel Twiggy was the first celebrity to join the Barbie family. Cher, Audrey Hepburn, Diana Ross and JK Rowling—to name a few—would later join the ranks of celebrities made into Barbies.
6. African-American and Latina Barbie Introduced
While there had been other African-American dolls in the Barbie collection before—including Barbie’s friend Christie, first introduced in 1968—an official African-American Barbie wasn’t created until 1980, alongside a Latina Barbie. That same year saw the first of more than 40 different international Barbies released to date.
7. Andy Warhol Paints Barbie
Given Andy Warhol’s longtime fascination with iconic stars such as Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, it should come as little surprise that the pop artists would get around to depicting Barbie. His inspiration came from his longtime friendship with a jewelry designer, an avid Barbie collector with tens of thousands of dolls. When Warhol asked to paint the designer’s portrait, his friend replied, “Do a portrait of Barbie because Barbie, c’est moi.” Nearly 20 years later, Mattel returned the favor, issuing an Andy Warhol-themed Barbie collectible.
8. Bob Mackie Designs his First Barbie
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To this day, the Bob Mackie Barbie dolls are some of the most sought after collectibles. Featuring his trademark style, Mackie’s first Barbie was The Bob Mackie Gold Barbie, which featured 5,000 hand-sewn golden sequin accents. Mackie helped start the collectible Barbie craze.
9. Barbie for President
Barbie began her run for president in 1992, and has launched six consecutive campaigns. We are still waiting to see if she throws her hat into the ring for the 2016 election.
10. Barbie and Ken break up?!
In the midst of a rash of high-profile celebrity breakups, in 2004 Barbie and Ken made news of their own when they decided they were better off as friends. They didn’t have to worry about splitting up their things though; the Dream House was always Barbie’s. After seven years apart, Barbie and Ken reunited.
11. Barbie Walks the Runway
To celebrate her 50th anniversary, Barbie had her own runway show in the New York Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, featuring original creations by 50 notable designers.
12. Drag Queen Barbie
The avant garde design duo, Phillippe and David Blond, known for glitz and glam created The Blonds Blond Diamond Barbie. Dressed to the nines in sparkles, gems and fur some see this fabulous doll as the first “drag queen” Barbie.
13. Ella, the first “Chemo Barbie”
Mattel produced a bald friend of Barbie named Ella. Created to help young girls with cancer, only a limited number were made and distributed directly to hospitals. Responding to a petition from a cancer patient’s mother, in 2014 Mattel agreed to produce more Ella Barbie dolls.
14. Cover of Sports Illustrated
Clad in a black and white suit reminiscent of her first outfit from 1959, Barbie made the cover of the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition.
15. Barbie Gets a Whole New Look
In 2016 Barbie Fashionistas were introduced to the world. They came in four body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles, addressing longtime criticism that the dolls did not accurately reflect the diversity of the modern woman.
16. Barbie Goes Historic
In 2018, Mattel released a new “Inspiring Women” collection that features three ground-breaking, history-making women—Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Katherine Johnson. Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. Kahlo was not only an inspiring, and well loved painter, she was an activist who continues to influence women’s movements today. Johnson—who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Barack Obama—was a physicist, space scientist and mathematician at NASA’s Langley Center. She provided the calculations for Alan Shepherd’s historic first flight into space, John Glenn’s ground-breaking orbit of the earth and the trajectory for Apollo 11’s moon landing.
In 2019, with the marking of Barbie's 60th anniversary, Mattel released a new Barbie body type that featured a smaller bust, less defined waist and more defined arms. The addition was just the latest in Barbie's expanded line featuring a wider array of body shapes.