A Brief History of Barbie Dolls

Mattel, whose name was derived from owners Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler, was in the business of making picture frames in the 1950s. From the picture frame scraps, they made doll furniture.  As doll furniture was more profitable than picture frames, the company began to focus solely on manufacturing toys.

It was Ruth Handler, Elliot’s wife, who thought that a doll with a woman’s figure would be a good seller, since her own daughter, Barbara, preferred playing with paper dolls in adult roles.  Both Harold and Elliot didn’t think an adult doll would sell.  While on a European trip, Ruth ran across the German Lilli doll, a doll not made for children, but rather as a gag gift for adults.  Ruth brought the doll home, and with changes in heavy makeup, less full lips and other alterations, the Barbie was introduced to the world at the American Toy Fair in New York City in February, 1959.  The popularity of the Barbie doll has from that time been unprecedented.

The reasons for the Barbie doll’s popularity have changed over time.  Initially, the Barbie was the perfect size doll to hold in one hand and dress with the other.  It wasn’t bulky like baby dolls whose limbs flopped around or that needed to be put down to dress.  It wasn’t so small that it couldn’t be outfitted with clothing that was maneuverable and well detailed and fitted.  It was the perfect size to actually be played with.  In addition, Mattel did a wonderful job of marketing the Barbie doll.  Mattel took advantage of television ads from the 1960s on to make the Barbie doll the most heavily marketed doll ever to a pre-teen and early teen audience.

As time progressed and the girls who played with Barbie dolls became women, the Barbie dolls they played with reminded them of enjoyable times as a child.  Enter the nostalgia factor.  Girls who had played with Barbie dolls have now become collectors of Barbie dolls.  Timing seems to have favored the Barbie doll in another way.  The early teens of the sixties are now the boomers of the two thousands.  With the widespread use of the internet and the time available to baby boomers, the task of collecting is facilitated by putting collector in the presence of seller, via ebay.

The Barbie doll collecting fervor did abate in the late nineties due to several factors. Mattel began to cheapen the product. In addition and probably more significantly, Mattel increased the production of the Barbie doll.  Collectors had been purchasing Barbie dolls at retail and selling them on the secondary market for large profits.  Mattel decided that if the dolls were worth so much to collectors, they would produce more of the dolls and sell them at higher prices.  Enter the end of people purchasing Barbie dolls for investments as the value of the dolls declined and sold for less on the secondary market than they were selling for retail.

Realizing that it had come close to cooking the golden goose, Mattel turned to collectors for advice on how to turn the situation around.  Enter the rebirth of the Barbie doll.  Fortunately, Mattel took the advice of collectors.  Mattel cut back on production and made Limited Editions of Barbie dolls, namely quantities of no more than 35,000 worldwide.  Collectors again began to buy Barbie dolls as soon as dolls were produced instead of waiting to see if they could get a better deal when overproduced dolls were more available. In addition, Mattel became more creative in developing innovative series of Barbie dolls, such as play line dolls and high fashion Barbie dolls.   They also improved the quality of the dolls by enhancing painting and by adding clothing and fashion accessories.

And if you are a collector, you want to keep your collectibles in as pristine a condition as possible.  Mattel has helped bring this about by improving its packaging.  Lift off top boxes allow you to view and display your collectible Barbie doll without ever having to remove her from the box.  Collectors are back in the game.  They and Mattel make great partners in the collection of the most famous doll of all time, Barbie.