A cultural icon turns 50

Friday, February 27, 2009

Barbie, you're still a doll!

Can it really be that the Barbie doll will turn 50 in March?

And at 50 the ol' girl is still going strong and still looking as pretty as ever.

I was a G.I. Joe guy myself. Boys don't play with dolls. We play with "action figures."

But I have watched my sisters and nieces over the years get hours and hours of enjoyment out of dressing up their Barbie dolls.

I have a precious picture of my niece Megan with her freshly combed Barbie dolls which Kimberly helped her brush all in a row posing for the camera.

The fact that a toy which was introduced 50 years ago is still just as popular as when it was first introduced is amazing in and of itself.

Did you know that about 90 percent of girls between the ages of 3 and 10 own at least one Barbie doll?

And according to Forbes magazine, Mattell has sold the dolls and their endless line of outfits in more than 140 countries. It is estimated that over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold --- that is a rate of about three dolls a second.

The story behind Barbie is the subject of a new book called "Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her," by Robin Gerber.

Ruth Handler, whose husband Elliott and business partner Harold Matson founded toy company Mattell, came up with the idea for Barbie after watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls imagining herself as an adult through the dolls.

Handler suggested the idea of designing a full bodied plastic doll for young girls, but nobody at Mattell thought it would sell.

During a trip to Europe, Handler saw a German toy doll called Bild Lilli which was meant for adults but was also popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in different outfits. Handler bought three of the dolls and brought them back to America and reworked the design and named it after her daughter.

Barbie made her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. She was decked out in a black and white zebra stripe swimsuit and was available as either a blonde or brunette.

About 350,000 dolls were sold that first year thanks to a very savvy early tv marketing campaign. In fact, it took Mattell three years to catch up with the demand for the dolls. Mattell later gave Barbie a boyfriend, "Ken", who was named after Handler's son.

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, you can find Barbie dolls in all shapes and sizes and even ethnicities. Barbie may have changed her look over the years, but what little girl doesn't want a Barbie doll under their Christmas tree?

Today, Mattell estimates there are over 100,000 Barbie collectors. The original Barbie, which sold for $3 in 1959, fetched $3,552.50 on eBay in 2004.

So here's to you, Barbie. Happy 50th birthday!