Ruth Marianna Handler was an American businesswoman and inventor. She is best known for inventing the Barbie doll in 1959, and being the first president of toy manufacturer Mattel from 1945 until 1975. Handler co-founded the company with her husband Elliot Handler. The Handlers were forced to resign from Mattel in 1975 after the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the company for falsifying financial documents.
Formation of Mattel
Elliot tried his hand at a hobby of furniture making. He decided to make their furniture out of two new types of plastics, Lucite and Plexiglas. Ruth Handler suggested that he start doing this commercially and they began a furniture business. Ruth Handler worked as the sales force for the new business, landing contracts with Douglas Aircraft Company and others.
Ruth saw the potential for an entrepreneurial endeavor. They went into partnership with Harold "Matt" Matson. They combined Matson's last name with Elliot's first name creating Mattel. According to Elliot, the founders could not fit Ruth's name into the name of the company. During World War II, furniture sales fell so Mattel began to manufacture toy furniture. The success of this business caused Ruth and Elliott to move Mattel fully into toy manufacturing.
Two stories are often cited as Handler's inspiration for the Barbie doll. The first details a trip to Europe with her husband and children, during which she saw a doll that looked like a woman (which was vastly different from the typical baby dolls that many girls owned at the time). The other discusses a singular moment, in which Ruth witnessed her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls in their home. Afterwards, Handler wanted to create a more realistic, 3D toy that represented what these girls "wanted to be". While the timeline of/truth behind these stories has never been fully confirmed, Ruth pushed Mattel for the release of what was to be known as the Barbie doll (named after her daughter Barbara).
Premiering at the American Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959, Barbie was an instant success. Girls clamored for the doll, and Mattel sold 351,000 dolls within their first year. Ruth even negotiated a deal for the dolls to be advertised as the sole sponsors of the Mickey Mouse Club, and Barbie was the first toy to successfully be advertised directly to children.
Soon after, they would add a boyfriend for Barbie named Ken, after the Handlers' son, and many other characters that would fill Barbie's imaginary world. Over the years, Mattel has produced a series of personas for Barbie; from astronaut to businesswoman to UNICEF volunteer and beyond.
Barbie has faced its fair share of controversy over the years, having to do with everything from the doll's “questionable intelligence” and hourglass physique to the introduction of the Ken doll in the 1960s as her "handsome steady.”
Annual sales of Barbie have rarely faded. Mattel has sold over 1 billion dolls.
Barbie has become a corporation, spanning a series of movies, TV shows, video games, celebrity collaborations, and essentially finding success in almost any form of media.