Ruth Handler, Inventor of Barbie Doll, Dies at 85
Ruth Handler, the entrepreneur and marketing genius who co-founded Mattel and created the Barbie doll, one of the world’s most enduring and popular toys, died Saturday.
Handler, 85, died at Century City Hospital in Los Angeles of complications following colon surgery about three months ago, said her husband, Elliot.
The longtime Southern California resident defied prevailing trends in the toy industry of the late 1950s when she proposed an alternative to the flat-chested baby dolls then marketed to girls.
Barbie, a teenage doll with a tiny waist, slender hips and impressive bust, became not only a best-selling toy with more than 1 billion sold in 150 countries, but a cultural icon analyzed by scholars, attacked by feminists and showcased in the Smithsonian Institution.
Although best known for her pivotal role as Barbie’s inventor, Handler devoted her later years to a second, trailblazing career: manufacturing and marketing artificial breasts for women who had undergone mastectomies.
Herself a breast cancer survivor, she personally sold and fitted the prosthesis and crisscrossed the country as a spokeswoman for early detection of the disease in the 1970s, when it was still a taboo subject.
Recognizing the continuity in her evolution from “Barbie’s mom” to prosthesis pioneer, Handler sometimes quipped, “I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.”
Born Ruth Mosko, she was the youngest of 10 children of Polish immigrants who settled in Denver. Her father was a blacksmith who deserted the Russian army. Her mother, who was illiterate, arrived in the United States in the steerage section of a steamship. Her mother’s health was so frail that Handler was raised by an older sister.
When she was 19, she left Denver for a vacation in Hollywood and wound up staying. Her high school boyfriend, Elliot Handler, followed her west and married her in 1938. She worked as a secretary at Paramount Studios while he studied industrial design at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena).
When Elliot made some simple housewares to furnish their apartment, Ruth persuaded him to produce more for sale. They bought some workshop equipment from Sears and launched a giftware business in their garage, making items such as bowls, mirrors and clocks out of plastic. With Ruth showing the product line to local stores, sales reached $2 million within a few years.
In 1942 they teamed up with another industrial designer, Harold “Matt” Mattson, to launch a business manufacturing picture frames. Using leftover wood and plastic scrap, they later launched a sideline making dollhouse furniture. Within a few years, the company turned profitable and began to specialize in toys. It was called Mattel, a name fashioned from the “Matt” in Mattson and the “El” in Elliot.
Early successes were musical toys, such as the Uke-A-Doodle, a child-size ukulele, and a cap gun called the Burp gun, which the Handlers advertised on the new medium of television. It was the first time a toy had been sold on national television year-round.
In the late 1950s, Elliot was so preoccupied with the development of a talking doll--eventually marketed as Chatty Cathy--that he was of little help to Ruth when she came up with an idea of her own.
Noting their daughter Barbara’s fascination with paper dolls of teenagers or career women, she realized there was a void in the market. She began to wonder if a three-dimensional version of the adult paper figures would have appeal. Why not sell a doll that allowed girls, as she would later say, to “dream dreams of the future”? This doll, she mused, would have to be lifelike. In other words, Handler believed, it would have to have breasts.
When she took the idea to Mattel’s executives, who were men, they sneered that no mother would buy her daughter a grown-up doll with a bosom. “Our guys all said, ‘Naw, no good,’ ” she recalled. “I tried more than once and nobody was interested, and I gave up.”
Inspired by German Doll
She let the project idle until 1956 when, during a European vacation, she spied a German doll called Lilli in a display case. It had a voluptuous figure, reminiscent of the poster pinups that entertained soldiers during World War II. Handler brought the doll home to Mattel’s designers and ordered them to draw up plans and find a manufacturer in Japan who could produce it.
Handler’s dream made its debut at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City. Named for her daughter, “Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model” had a girl-next-door ponytail, black-and-white striped bathing suit and teeny feet that fit into open-toed heels. Mattel sold more than 350,000 the first year, and orders soon backed up for the doll, which retailed for $3. “The minute that doll hit the counter, she walked right off,” Handler said.
By the early 1960s, Mattel had annual sales of $100 million, due largely to Barbie. The company, then based in Hawthorne, annually turned out new versions of Barbie as well as an ever-expanding wardrobe of outfits and accessories befitting the new princess of toydom. Soon enough Barbie sprouted a coterie of friends and family. Ken, named for the Handlers’ son, appeared in 1961; Midge in 1963; Skipper in 1965; and African American doll Christie, Barbie’s first ethnic friend, in 1969. The first black Barbie came much later, in 1981.
Other dolls were named for Handler’s grandchildren, including Stacie, Todd and Cheryl.
Under pressure from feminists, Barbie evolved from fashion model to career woman, including doctor, astronaut, police officer, paramedic, athlete, veterinarian and teacher.
Over the years, the toy inspired Barbie clubs, conventions, magazines and Web sites. Barbie was immortalized by Andy Warhol, preserved in time capsules and inspired conceptual artists who spiked the doll’s hair or posed it in pickle jars to make statements.
M.G. Lord, author of “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Living Doll,” called Barbie the most potent icon of American culture of the late 20th century.
“She’s an archetypal female figure, she’s something upon which little girls project their idealized selves,” she said. “For most baby boomers, she has the same iconic resonance as any female saints, although without the same religious significance.”
The National Organization for Women and other feminists targeted Barbie in the 1970s, arguing that the doll promoted unattainable expectations for young girls. If Barbie was 5 foot 6 instead of 11 1/2 inches tall, her measurements, would be 39-21-33. An academic expert once calculated that a woman’s likelihood of being shaped like Barbie was less than 1 in 100,000.
(Ken was shaped somewhat more realistically: The chances of a boy developing his measurements were said to be 1 in 50.)
Handler said she did not take offense at the feminist broadsides and often noted that successful women had played with Barbie and told her the doll helped them enact their aspirations. Even artists’ tortured interpretations of Barbie didn’t bother her. “More power to them,” said Handler, who kept a gold-plated Barbie in her Century City high-rise.
“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Handler wrote in her 1994 autobiography. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
Rare Achievement for Woman of Her Era
Handler herself must have bedeviled feminists. Although Barbie was mocked as a bimbo, her creator was ahead of most women of her generation, juggling career and children in the 1950s when the ideal woman was someone more like the cheerful and industrious television housewife Donna Reed.
By 1966, Handler was 50 and Mattel ruled the highly competitive toy world: It controlled 12% of the $2-billion toy market in the United States. “I had my career, my husband, my children, Barbie and Ken, and I was on top of the world,” Handler recalled.
By 1970, however, her world began to unravel. Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. New corporate managers began to diversify Mattel away from toys, and their machinations ultimately resulted in the Handlers’ ouster from the company they had founded.
To make matters worse, in 1978 Handler was indicted by a grand jury on charges of fraud and false reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission. She pleaded no contest and was fined $57,000 and sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service.
She later attributed her downfall to her illness, which she said caused her to be “unfocused” about a massive corporate reorganization she had begun. When she returned to work after her mastectomy, no one mentioned the reason she had been gone but many gave her sorrowful looks, which reduced her to tears.
“I’d been opinionated and outspoken. I had strong leadership skills. I had been running a company making hundreds of millions of dollars a year. We had 15,000 employees. I had a big job. But suddenly,” she said, “I was supposed to whisper about what I’d been through.”
The experience was so unnerving, she told USA Today in 1994, that “I was never able to get back in and grab hold of things as I should have.”
In 1975, she and her husband were forced out of Mattel. The following year she founded a new company, but not to make toys.
Ruthton Corp. in Inglewood was the result of the humiliation Handler experienced when she sought to restore her appearance to its pre-mastectomy state. Her doctor told her to stuff the empty side of her bra with a pair of rolled-up stockings. The effect was so awful that Handler went to a Beverly Hills department store and asked a saleslady for an artificial breast. She was taken to a dressing room and with no explanation was handed a surgical bra and a couple of gloves. She eventually figured out that she was supposed to stuff the bra with the gloves.
A New Concept for Artificial Breasts
She finally found someone who made prosthetic breasts, but they were little better. “I looked at the shapeless glob that lay in the bottom of my brassiere and thought, ‘My god, the people in this business are men who don’t have to wear these.’ ” She decided she should manufacture one herself.
The Nearly Me prosthetic breast was made of liquid silicone enclosed in polyurethane and had a rigid foam backing. Handler sold it in lefts and rights according to bra size. Her goal was to make an artificial breast so real that “a woman could wear a regular brassiere and blouse, stick her chest out and be proud.”
She led a sales team of eight middle-aged women, most breast cancer survivors, into department stores where they fitted women and trained the sales staffs. She fit former First Lady Betty Ford after her mastectomy. Her aggressive tactics included talk-show appearances and handwritten invitations to breast cancer patients. She also had what she called her “strip act”: She would remove her blouse to demonstrate that no one could feel or see the difference between her real and prosthetic breast. She was pictured in People magazine yanking open her blouse to flaunt her bosom.
By 1980, sales of the Nearly Me artificial breast had surpassed $1 million. In 1991, Handler sold the company to a division of Kimberly-Clark.
She went on the lecture circuit to promote her product and tell women about the importance of early detection and regular mammograms.
“I didn’t make a lot of money in it,” she said of the prosthetics business. “It sure rebuilt my self-esteem, and I think I rebuilt the self-esteem of others.”
Her son Ken died of a brain tumor in 1994. She is survived by her husband of 63 years; her daughter, Barbara Segal; one brother, Aaron Mosko of Denver; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Services are scheduled Tuesday at 2 p.m. at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 W. Centinela Ave.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Stop Cancer organization, 9171 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills 90212.