Entrepreneur in from history: Ruth Handler, Barbie Doll & the rise of Mattel
February 10, 2015
Who was behind the making of an American icon and how was it that she succeeded at a time when many men felt a women’s place was in the home? Well, boy did she show them. Ruth Marianna Handler was an US business woman and inventor best known for her role as President of the global toy maker, Mattel and because of her role in the development of the Barbie doll – now a global icon.
As described in her online bio: 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
Her husband 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"). Later, they began using scraps from the manufacturing process to make dollhouse furniture. The furniture was more profitable than the picture frames and it was decided to concentrate on toy manufacturing. The company's first big-seller was the "Uke-a-doodle", a toy ukulele.
Ruth Handler claimed her daughter Barbara, who was becoming a pre-teen, played with paper dolls by pretending they were adults. Handler noted the limitations of the paper dolls, including how the paper clothing failed to attach well. 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 the Handlers' daughter, Barbara.Barbie debuted at the New York toy fair on March 9, 1959 but was not an immediate success. 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.
With the creation of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler has changed the way little girls play and dream, and has forever left her stamp on American culture. Handler came up with the idea of creating a doll that looked more like an adult after noticing that her daughter preferred to play with paper dolls that looked like adults. Although her husband didn't think the idea would sell, Handler debuted Barbie (her daughter's nickname) at a New York toy fair in 1959.
Handler and her husband, Elliot, were already selling dollhouse furniture and other toys through their company, Mattel, based out of their Hawthorne, California, garage. Within five years, Mattel became a Fortune 500 company. In 1967, Handler became president of Mattel Inc., a position she stayed in until 1974. Her legacy lives on today, and Barbie brings in more than $1 billion a year for Mattel.
Take a look at these inspiring quotes from Ruth:
Don’t dwell on what happened, no matter how bad it was. Find something else to do. Find something to do to help others.
[At the age of 78] I’ve been proving myself my whole life. I still am.
[On the philosophy behind Barbie] My whole philosophy was that through the doll, a little girl could be anything she wanted to be.
Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.
[On her husband Elliot Handler she was married to for 60 years and who name she used with Harold ‘Matt’ Matson to create the toy company Mattel - the worlds largest toy company (Matt +el (From ‘el’liot) (Matt exited the company in 1947 only three years after they founded it. Ruth and Elliot Handler were the real drivers.)] From the first day I met Elliot I admired his immense artistic and creative talents. Elliot, in turn, respected my talents: self-confidence… and above all, my willingness to attack the impossible.
[On the Barbie Doll she created] She became not just a doll. She became part of that child through those growing up years. Many of those children set their life’s dreams, their goals, through Barbie. Many of them said Barbie helped them achieve those dreams. That’s a pretty heavy thing, but it’s true.
I rebuilt my self-esteem and I rebuilt the self-esteem of others.
I like to think of my life as an impossible dream.
I’ve had a lot of nightmares, but I’ve always been able to pick up and move on.
We never copied people, ever.
In the toy business, you live or die with the quality of the projection you make. Your lead times are very long, and the commitments you make very early influence how many you make or ship and whether you get stuck with what you do.
They would reflect their dreams of their future through their play with these adult… dolls.
I simply preferred working over playing with other kids.
I am breaking the mold. I shall have a career.
There’s still a lot of fight in me, and perhaps the fight’s the thing.
I took the old-time companies that were self-satisfied and smug and shook them up.
Helping other women became the answer to helping myself. I regained my self-esteem.
Little girls just want to be bigger girls.
We never entered any business the same way other people entered. We never copied people, ever.
I grew up with the idea that a woman – a mother – with a job was neither strange nor unnatural.
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