In 1945, Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler created a garage-based manufacturing business. They named it by combining their first names, Mattel. First, they manufactured picture frames. Using the leftover pieces of wood, Elliot built dollhouses that sold well. Soon, Matson dropped out of the business leaving it solely owned by Handler and his wife, Ruth.
Ruth and Matt created a toy ukulele that sold well, the company’s first major success. In 1955, they licensed the rights for popular “Mickey Mouse Club Products.” Licensing pop-culture characters for toys was an emerging and popular business model. In 1955, they patented the toy cap gun. The business wasn’t spectacular but the Handler’s were doing well.
Dolls during this era were babies or children. However, Ruth noticed her own daughter, Barbara, playing with dolls and assigning them adult roles. In 1956, the family took a trip in Europe and purchased a German toy doll called Bild Lilli that looked like a small woman rather than a child. Originally marketed to adults, Lilli was more popular with children.
Back in the US, Ruth decided to make her own grown-up doll. The doll should look fun, she reasoned, rather than realistic. It had an unusually large bust, a slim waist, and full-size hips. Ruth named it Barbie, after her daughter Barbara.
On March 9, 1959, Barbie was introduced to the world at the American International Toy Fair in New York. She wore a black-and-white one piece and came in blonde or brunette. The “Teen-age Fashion Model” was wildly successful, selling about 350,000 during her first year. Ruth died in 2002 and Eliott in 2011 but, in 2019 at 60 years-old, Barbie is still very much alive.