How Barbie Dolls Got Their Start

Daniel Ganninger
May 21, 2021
Photo of a Barbie Doll

Barbie is the fashion doll made by the toymaker Mattel that has been around for over 60 years, as you probably know. She’s had over 200 occupations and only one main boyfriend during that time, but how did she get her start?

Ruth Handler, an American businesswoman, got the idea for Barbie after watching her daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls. She noticed that her daughter gave the dolls adult roles and realized there might be a market for a new doll.

Handler approached her husband, Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company, with the idea for an adult doll for children. She found and ended up purchasing three German dolls called Bild Lilli during a trip to Europe that were just what she wanted — an adult-figured doll. Bild Lilli just happened to be a doll based on a high-end call girl that was marketed to adults and found in German bars and tobacco shops.

She reworked the doll back in the states and named it after her daughter (she also named Ken after her son, Kenneth). An engineer at Mattel named Jack Ryan, who had previously designed missiles, later patented the design for the original Barbie doll. 

Barbie made her debut on March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair in New York, and this date became her birthday. The first doll sold for $3, and she wore a black and white swimsuit. It became a hit after the first production run.

Barbie’s full name of Barbara Millicent Roberts came from a series of 1960s novels. Barbie lived in a fictional town called Willows, Wisconsin, and attended Willows High School. Her parents were Margaret and George. Seven sibling dolls have been released over the years. Barbie and Ken split briefly in 2004 but got back together on Valentine’s Day in 2011, just in case you were curious.