In this “Learning from InvENtors” post, our focus is on inventor Ruth Handler.
You may have heard of Ms. Handler’s most famous invention… a little doll known as Barbie.
Perhaps one of the most famous toy figures in American history, the Barbie doll is a staple in the toy chests of little girls everywhere.
Ruth and Elliot Handler founded Mattel Creations in 1945, and 14 years later, Ruth Handler gave the world the Barbie doll. When asked her relationship to Barbie, Ruth simply replied,
“I’m Barbie’s mom.”
Ruth Handler was born as Ruth Marianna Mosko in Denver, Colorado, to Polish Jewish immigrants Ida Mosko (née Rubenstein) and Jacob Mosko. She married her high school boyfriend, Elliot Handler. They moved to Los Angeles in 1938. Her husband decided to make their furniture out of two newfound types of plastics, Lucite and Plexiglas. Ruth Handler suggested that he start doing this commercially and they began a furniture business. Ruth Handler worked as the sales force for the new business, landing contracts with Douglas Aircraft Company and others.
Formation of Mattel
Elliot Handler and his business partner, Harold “Matt” Matson, formed a small company to manufacture picture frames, calling it “Mattel” by combining part of their names (“Matt” and “Elliot”). On weekends home from wartime duties at Camp Robert, California, Elliot made toy furniture for Ruth to sell. By the mid-1940s, the young company would be taking in revenues of $2 million ($21.6 million in 2003 dollars). Borrowing money from A. P. Giannini’s Bank of America, Mattel presided over a plastic ukulele fad, sold toy pianos and launched a music box that sold 20 million units by 1952.
While watching her daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls, Ruth noticed that she and her friends used them to play adult or teenage make-believe, imagining roles as college students, cheerleaders and adults with careers. Handler noted the limitations of the paper dolls, including how the paper clothing failed to attach well. Ruth immediately recognized that experimenting with the future from a safe distance through pretend play was an important part of growing up. She also noticed a product void and was determined to fill that niche with a three-dimensional fashion doll.
She wanted to produce a three-dimensional plastic “paper doll” with an adult body and a wardrobe of fabric clothing, but her husband and Mr. Matson thought parents would not buy their children a doll with a voluptuous figure.
While the Handler family was vacationing in Europe, Ruth Handler saw the German Bild Lilli doll (which was not a children’s toy, but rather an adult gag gift) in a Swiss shop and brought it home. The Lilli doll was a representation of the same concept Ruth had been trying to sell to other Mattel executives.
Once home, she reworked the design of the doll and named her Barbie after their daughter, Barbara.
Several years and many designs later, Mattel introduced Barbie, the Teenage Fashion Model, to skeptical toy buyers at the annual Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. Never before had they seen a doll so completely unlike the baby and toddler dolls popular at the time. When Disney introduced The Mickey Mouse Club children’s television show, Mattel invested heavily in television advertising. The TV commercials for the Barbie doll paid off and Barbie rocketed Mattel and the Handlers to fame and fortune. Subsequently, they would add a boyfriend for Barbie named Ken, after the Handlers’ son, and many other “friends and family” to Barbie’s world.
In 1960, the Handlers took Mattel public, with a valuation of $10 million. It was on its way to the Fortune 500, and Barbie quickly became an icon, with ever-changing wardrobe and career options that mirrored women’s changing aspirations. Handler served as the company’s president for several of its most successful years.
Today, with a professional resume thicker than a phone book, a circle of friends that rival any social network and a community of caring that spans the globe, Barbie continues to find new ways to inspire and encourage the next generation of girls. The Barbie doll invention remains one of Mattel’s best-selling products.
Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970. She had a modified radical mastectomy, which was often used at the time to combat the disease, and because of difficulties in finding a good breast prosthesis, she decided to make her own. Handler went on to found a company, Ruthton Corp., formed by her and Peyton Massey, which manufactured a more realistic version of a woman’s breast, called “Nearly Me”. This product is still produced and distributes breast replacements and post-mastectomy swimwear to customers internationally.
Though the Handlers took a more hands-off approach to their company’s business practice after resigning, they still kept creating more ideas. One project Handler took on in the 1980s was Barbie and the Rockers. She was credited as a writer of the 1987 film Barbie and the Rockers: Out of this World. Handler was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1997.
Ruth died in California from complications of surgery for colon cancer on April 27, 2002, aged 85.
Another example of an inventor who had her “BING” moment while observing a void in the category. It is likely Ruth never thought her little doll would continue to be as popular today as it was when she first introduced it in 1959.
My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.
Find necessity in the marketplace and let that be your inspiration.
Inspired? Head on over to the Roger Shiffman search and Submit your toy idea now!