We are Barbie Girls (not really) in a Barbie world (sure, why not?); life in plastic, it’s fantastic! So say the paraphrased lyrics of Aqua’s 1997 hit, Barbie Girl, but how did Barbie’s world get created and who is the mastermind behind it?

Ruth Handler.

Ruth was a powerhouse business person and a marketing genius in a time when women were not often found in the CEO’s chair unless they were…um…playing around. Ruth worked hard to get there, the only playing around was with the toys that she and her husband, Elliot, created in the company they founded– Mattel.

Ruth was the last child of Polish immigrants, although her eldest sister, Sarah and her husband, Louie were her defacto parents from birth. She met her husband, Elliot when they were both teenagers, married and founded two plastic design companies, first Elzac and then Mattel. They let themselves be bought out of the first, but the second was soon a household name.

Mattel originally manufactured picture frames but it wasn’t long before Elliot was designing toys and Ruth was marketing them. The company shot into the toymaker stratosphere when Mattel took a gamble on a never-before-tried advertising plan with a never-before-seen TV show called The Mickey Mouse Club. ( The Mattel Burp Gun ad, that we shared, with the kid on a “safari” has been removed from YouTube, but we’re not stopping you from going on a video safari of your own to look for it.)

The Barbie story is legendary: Ruth saw her young daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls and had a flash of inspiration: The world needs an adult shaped, three-dimensional doll! The men at Mattel disagreed.

When I grow up, I want to be a three-dimensional, woman-shaped, plastic doll with clothes that stay on!

But when Ruth found her muse (“muse” or “blueprint,” it’s your call) in Germany, the Bild Lilli doll, there was no stopping her. With an engineering assist from a less than squeaky clean Mattel consultant, Jack Ryan, Barbie made her debut in 1959.

Original Barbie, the dark-haired version. wikicommons

The very first Barbie ad!

Over the years Barbie’s career, clothes, and features changed but her goal was to reflect trends and help show little girls that marriage and motherhood were only one option for their future. Of course, we cover everything from Barbie controversies, careers, society at large, to the rise, stumbles and successes of Ruth herself. We also give a quick overview of all the changes Barbie has had over the years–for instance, 80’s Barbie got involved in the music business…

..and, eventually, Mattel made Barbie in skin tones other than white.

Time Travel with the History Chicks


These are the two we thought you should start with:

Robin Gerber

For 10 and over, Tanya Lee Stone

Also very balanced:

Lee Slater, for kids

Semi-memoirish M. G. Lord

Very Pro Barbie:


Dark views:

Jerry Oppenheimer

Orly Lobel


Where are all the pictures, Chicks? Locked behind copyright laws that we don’t want to mess around with, but give a gander at our Pinterest board and you’ll get an eyeful!

Barbie’s official website, and a companion site with information about the Dream Gap Project.

You’ve heard that Barbie’s measurements don’t appear naturally, right? We’re not sure but Pin-Up Betty Brosmer is pretty darn close (we Googled so so you don’t have to—it’s mostly a Clear Search History situation.) Here’s an article about her, with photos, on Messy Nessy.

Barbie was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, there is a virtual tour, but if you’re in Rochester, New York go visit the Strong, National Museum of Play–we’re pretty sure that the kids would love this one.

Barbie’s on Instagram (of course she is.) Here’s an article about it from Racked, and her account so you can follow it.

We searched Ebay so you don’t have to! Here are some Elzac offerings.

Learn a bit about the evolution of language, how did we get from “colored” to “minorities” to “people of color? from NPR.”

The internet is full of very clever people, here are some who have improved upon the story of Barbie the Computer Engineer…she does NOT need the boys to help her program, no she does not. Feminist Hacker Barbie


Netflix has a series called The Toys That Made Us, Season 1, Episode 2 is about Barbie, and Hulu has a documentary, Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, that follows the development of the most recent incarnation of Barbie to reflect how females really look.

If you aren’t keen on the whole Barbie universe but are looking for toys for girls, you might check out GoldiBlox and help build an army of maker girls!

And finally, because it’s been on a loop in our brains, it should be on yours, too: