Found  /  Origin Story

A Cultural History of Barbie

Loved and loathed, the toy stirs fresh controversy at age 64.

Ruth Handler, who co-founded Mattel with her husband, Elliot Handler, and Harold Matson in 1945, noticed her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls and dreaming about what kind of woman she would become. Ruth decided there should be a proper doll onto which girls could project their highest aspirations. (In another version of this origin story, Ruth got the idea from an adult novelty doll she’d seen while vacationing in Switzerland.) Ruth named the doll Barbie, after her daughter. The first model went on display in March 1959 at the annual Toy Fair in New York City.

In Barbie’s first television ad, broadcast that same year, a woman sings from the point of view of a young girl, promising that one day, she’ll be just like Barbie. “Til then, I know just what I’ll do: Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.”

Despite toy industry naysayers, who carped that nobody would want to play with a doll that had breasts, Barbie—with her tiny waist and changeable yet always idealized looks—became a global phenomenon. Three hundred thousand Barbie dolls were sold in the first year. The toy swiftly grew so popular she needed her own entourage. In 1961, Barbie got a boyfriend, Ken, named, perhaps oddly, after the Handlers’ son. In 1963, she got a best friend, Midge, and, in 1964, a little sister, Skipper. In 2021, Mattel shipped more than 86 million dolls from the Barbie universe, which comes to about 164 dolls a minute. From the beginning, Barbie has been about allowing young girls to dream. The dolls are at once idealistic and materialistic, offering a characteristically American fantasy—for a price.

Barbie soon became central to the cultural and political conversation, often scandalizing critics across the political spectrum. Barbie adopted progressive stances: The same year as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Mattel introduced Christie, a Black doll with a mod swimsuit. Many activists, though, took issue with the dolls. At the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality in New York City, some marchers asserted their independence with the chant, “I am not a Barbie doll!”