The Hardest Working Doll on the Planet

The Woman Who Changed the Toy Industry


Ruth Handler (1916-2002) and her husband Elliot co-founded the Mattel Company in 1945. They enjoyed moderate success producing toy ukuleles, toy guns and dollhouse furniture.

Their big breakthrough, however came from Ruth’s observation of her daughter when she played with dolls. Even though the dolls at that time were all modeled on babies or toddlers, her daughter projected her fantasies about adult life onto them. It occurred to Ruth that there was a niche in the toy market just waiting to be filled. Her husband and their other partner were skeptical, but she had no doubts.

Subsequently, on a trip to Europe, she came upon a doll with an adult body, purchased it and brought it back to the U.S. She modified it, named it after her daughter, Barbara, and introduced it to the industry at the 1959 Toy Fair.

Mattel sold 350,000 Barbie Dolls that first year.

The Barbie universe now includes, in addition to Barbie, seven siblings, more than 100 friends, families, neighbors and band-mates, and 40 pets including dogs, cats, horses, lions, zebras and pandas.

Barbie may be the most famous of Ruth’s inventions, but it wasn’t her only innovation. In 1955, Mattel became the first toy company to market its products year-round directly to children when it bought 52 weeks of advertising on the new “Mickey Mouse Club” show.

In 1970, Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy. She was not at all happy with the prosthetic options available to her, so she created a line of artificial breasts called “Nearly Me.” The irony of this – considering her creation’s famous physical attributes – was not lost on Ruth. She often quipped, “I have lived my life from breast to breast.”

Ten years after Ruth’s death from colon cancer, Mattel claims more than a billion Barbie Dolls have been sold worldwide. Really, it’s Barbie’s world and we’re just living in it.

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