Robert L. Peters

24 March 2009

Barbie… at fifty.

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New York, New York

Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday on 9 March, which marked the opening day of the American International Toy Fair in New York where she made her debut in 1959. The doll was inspired by German doll Bild Lilli, itself inspired by a German newspaper comic strip. Ruth Handler, wife of Elliot, a co-founder of Mattel Inc., purchased three Bild Lilli dolls while vacationing in Europe in 1956. When she got home, she gave one to her daughter Barbara and the other two went to Mattel where the design was reworked—thus Barbie, named after Ruth’s daughter was born.

Like Bild Lilli, Barbie was tall and slim with long legs and a tiny waist. No other doll in the American market looked like her. She was an instant success; Mattel sold some 350,000 dolls in the first year of production. Over the years, over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries—Mattel claims that three are sold every second.

Mattel acquired rights to Bild Lilli in 1964 and stopped its production. But Barbie has remained a subject of controversies—many of which now center on the unrealistic body image she presents to young women—and lawsuits. The most recent of these was launched by Mattel against MGA Entertainment Inc., makers of Bratz dolls. Mattel won a court order banning MGA from selling their infringing Bratz doll on 3 December 2008, a decision that MGA announced it would appeal. Barbie sales are still going strong—she remains the most popular doll for girls. But she may need freshening up for her 50th birthday; last year’s fourth quarter sales worldwide fell 21 percent.”

The above is from the February 2009 issue of WIPO Magazine (World Intellectual Property Organization), a free publication that comes out bi-monthly from Geneva. What the article does not mention is that the sassy Bild Lilli doll (developed by Max Weissbrodt of the O&M Hausser toy company in Neustadt/Coburg) was originally marketed to adults in bars as a joke or gag gift (the doll was based on a racy German cartoon character which itself debuted on 24 June 1952, created by Reinhard Beuthien for the tabloid Bild-Zeitung in Hamburg).

Images: Barbie from 1959; her swinging predecessor Bild Lilli.

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