Barbie and the History of American Childhood

In many ways, summer 2023 was the summer of "Barbie," driven by the "Barbie" movie's highly-anticipated release and its extensive bubblegum pink marketing campaign. This collection explores the longer history of Barbie and other dolls and how they reflected and shaped American society and culture, bringing questions of gender, race, class, and power into child's play.
Margot Robbie in "Barbie" film.

This is the Real History of Barbie

Before the eagerly-anticipated film hits our screens, we take a look back at the story of the world's most famous doll.
Barbie was created by Ruth Handler in 1945, after Handler decided to "give her [daughter] a doll that was not a baby, but a woman she could aspire to." Since then, Barbie has been a surgeon, an Olympic skier, and run for president in every election since 1992. But Barbie's unrealistic body type has prompted criticism, causing the Mattel corporation to diversify its offerings.
Different Barbie designs sitting around a table.

Decoding Barbie’s Radical Pose

The “Barbie” movie glides over the history of dolls as powerful cultural objects.
The complex history of how Mattel's Barbies came to be the way they are depicted in the "Barbie" movie (2023): as representing and celebrating diverse, empowered, career-driven women.
Barbie dolls in 1959 wearing the zebra-striped swimsuit.

A Cultural History of Barbie

Loved and loathed, the toy stirs fresh controversy at age 64.
Barbie has a complicated past in which she has not always represented empowerment and inclusivity. But the ways children imagine and play with Barbie have made her an enduring symbol of possibility.
American Girl dolls

The Enduring Nostalgia of American Girl Dolls

The beloved line of fictional characters taught children about American history and encouraged them to realize their potential.
American Girl Dolls and their accompanying books, clothing, and accessories are designed to teach girls about what it was like to grow up during different periods of history. Their stories carry the message, according to one scholar, that "girlhood is universal." But was it? And how have American Girl Dolls attempted to reconcile celebrations of girlhood with sharing accurate -- and thus, sometimes violent and traumatic -- histories?

What the Black Dolls Say

These rare survivors of early African-American art can illuminate much about our difficult history.
Collector Deborah Neff has amassed a rich assemblage of more than 200 dolls made mostly by African American women and men between 1850 and 1940. Why have major museums been unwilling to exhibit them?

The Racial Symbolism of the Topsy-Turvy Doll

The uncertain meaning behind a half-black, half-white, two-headed toy.
Topsy-Turvy dolls are two dolls -- one Black, one white -- connected at the waist. These dolls were likely first made on plantations in the American South in the nineteenth century, though by the mid-twentieth century they were being mass-produced for play throughout the United States. Why were topsy-turvy dolls created in the first place? What structures did the dolls help children and their parents navigate - or subvert?
Twentieth-century porcelain dolls made by German company Armand Marseille

How Porcelain Dolls Became the Ultimate Victorian Status Symbol

Class-obsessed consumers found the cold, hard and highly breakable figurines irresistible
Elegantly-clothed porcelain bisque dolls and their lavish accessories helped wealthy girls learn to enact their "class, whiteness, and Europeanness." Many of these once-exclusive dolls survive in the present day to "represent" childhood in museums, thrift stores, and auction houses.
Potato Head family

Toys Are Ditching Genders for the Same Reason They First Took Them On

Why the Potato Heads are the latest toys becoming more inclusive.
The toy business began "overtly gendered marketing" in the mid-twentieth century, when manufacturers realized that well-off families would buy distinct toy sets for girls and boys. Today, the same profit-seeking impulse that led to gendering toys is leading to a de-emphasis on gendered toys, as companies seek new markets.
A line of G.I. Joe action figures, in various military-style uniforms as well as scuba gear.

How G.I. Joe Jump-Started the Action Figure Craze

In the late 1970s, smaller 'Star Wars' action figures took over.
In 1964, Hasbro sought to create a toy for boys that could compete with Mattel's Barbie. And so G.I. Joe was born, complete with moveable joints that made the military-themed doll readier for action than Barbie. G.I. Joe spurred a craze for action figure toys for boys and girls, notably "Star Wars"-themed action figures released alongside the movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, action figures include pop-culture based collectibles, which appeal to adults as well as children.