The evolution of Barbie

Australian model Erika Heynatz cuts a Barbie doll chocolate mud cake to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic doll on the shores of the Sydney Harbor.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: In case you don't follow toy news closely, here's the top story of the day. America's favorite doll turns 50 years old today. That would be Barbie. And as sometimes happens around that age, she's getting a face lift. Sort of an old face, really. Mattel's releasing a modernized version of the way Barbie looked back in 1959, when she first came out. She has changed a lot since then. White, black, blond, brunette, princess, rock star. It is a big Barbie world out there.

TINA FLEMING: Huge.

Tina Fleming's the manager at Kip's Toyland here in Los Angeles.

FLEMING: Now barbie comes with accessories, and they do things, like this one with the horse. You can comb the horse's hair and put beads in it. Over there is the mermaid, she can go in the bathtub, and the tail moves.

And don't forget the designer version at a hundred dollars a pop. But at one time Barbie was just a single doll in a plain old black and white bathing suit. Robin Gerber explores how Barbie came to be in her new book "Barbie and Ruth."

ROBIN GERBER: The actual idea for having a doll came from a woman named Ruth Handler, she had founded Mantel toy company in 1945 and in the early 50s she observed her own daughter, Barbara, playing with adult paper dolls with her friends and realized that these little girls really did not have an adult three-dimensional doll to play with. They only had baby dolls. And so they can only pretend to be mothers. And so Ruth understood that little girls just want to play at being big girls. And so she had this idea, but found that the men in her company, the male designer and researchers, thought it was a terrible idea. They insisted mother's would never buy their daughters a doll with breasts.

Ryssdal: And what about the public. When Barbie finally hit the market, was the buxomness an issue?

GERBER: Yes, it was for mothers. But Ruth had higher demand, named Ernest Dichter, one of the first psychologists to come to companies and say I can tell you how to sell stuff by appealing to emotions in people. She had him do focus groups and talk to mothers and daughters and they decided to market this doll as a teenage fashion model and that way mothers could feel reassured that the doll would teach their daughter good grooming. And the daughters could still have the doll to play with.

Ryssdal: So it did sell, I mean, once it hit market?

GERBER: Not immediately when it hit the market because she brought the doll out at a toy fair and like any product today was dependent on these buyers buying it and getting it into their stores. Well, they didn't think that mothers would buy the doll and so there were very few orders. But Ruth had a brilliant television commercial that some people who are listening I'm sure will remember -- showing Barbie as a real girl.

Barbie advertisement: Barbie you're beautiful, you make me feel, my Barbie doll is really real...

GERBER: That television commercial really moved the kids and when they got out of school -- about the three months after toy fair -- in June 1959, they started begging for that doll, and it actually took Mattel three years to catch up with demand.

Ryssdal: How much were the kids, well, I guess their parents, paying for the doll when she came out in 1959?

GERBER: You know, she was $3 in 1959, and honestly you could buy one today for $5 because the real genius, of course, it's the razor-razor blade theory that's going on with Barbie. You buy the doll and you have to get all those clothes and accessories and...

Ryssdal: So what you're telling me is that my two-year-old daughter now, I'm just in for a lifetime of buying her clothes and stuff?

GERBER: Most likely, Kai.

Ryssdal: I don't know whether to be heartened or you know heart-warmed by that. The book by Robin Gerber about the Barbie doll and the woman who created her is called "Barbie and Ruth." Robin, thanks a lot.

GERBER: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: Tina Fleming back at Kips Toyland points out that Barbie isn't just for little girls anymore.

Fleming: You really would be amazed how many adults collect these dolls, men too.

Ryssdal: If you're a fan, child or no, take a look at our Web site. We've got that old commercial that Robin Gerber was talking about.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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