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The following is an excerpt from "Jewish Girls Who Dreamed Big", by Janice Baryshnikov:

Ruth Mosko Handler was that woman.




And –you guessed it! Ruth’s daughter’s name was Barbara, nickname Barbie. I probably don’t need to tell you that her son’s name was Ken.
As a young girl Ruth had big ambitions for her future. She dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur, a female executive and maybe even president of her own company. As a young mother, Ruth observed her daughter Barbie project her ambitions for the future onto her imaginary play with her dolls. The astute Ruth recognized that when her daughter and her friends played with dolls, they did not act out current childhood events. Instead, they role played their hopes and aspirations for the future including college, career and marriage. Ruth, the amateur child psychologist, intuitively understood that reflecting and experimenting into the future through pretend play was an important aspect of young girls’ maturational process. Ruth, the business strategist, recognized a product void in the doll market place. That void was a doll that looked like an adult woman complete with breasts who dressed in a fashion forward manner. As you will soon learn, Barbie, the doll that filled this void, became a trendsetting cultural icon.

Let me back track a little and set the backdrop for both Barbie’s entrance onto the world stage and Ruth Handler’s fairytale success story. At first glance, Ruth seems an unlikely candidate to revolutionize the toy industry and start a Fortune 500 company. She was born into a poor family of European immigrants who came to America, travelling in steerage, to escape anti Semitism and the pogroms in Poland. Ruth was the youngest of ten children in the Moskowicz (later Mosko) family so when her mother became ill, Ruth was sent to live with her oldest sister. Ruth did not complete college, left her sister’s home in Denver Colorado and went to California where she worked as a secretary. Certainly not the typical background conducive to nurturing a future successful business woman!

But Ruth was a born entrepreneur. She married her childhood sweetheart, Isadore Elliot Handler. The two were a dynamic duo. Elliot, as Ruth convinced him to call himself, was the creative force while Ruth was the marketing genius. When Elliot decided to build furniture for their home, Ruth shrewdly suggested he sell it commercially. When Elliot decided to manufacture picture frames with his partner Harold “Matt” Manson, Ruth convinced them to start a small company. The headquarters for this fledgling business was the Handler garage. Elliot used the scraps from the picture frames to make doll houses. Soon the partners realized that the doll houses were more lucrative than the picture frames. Deciding to focus on toy manufacturing, the two men formed Mattel-“Matt” from Harold Matson and “El” from Elliot Handler. Just so you are aware, in 1945, they did not even consider using a part of Ruth’s name as the signature of the company. Even though her name was absent from the company, you can be sure Ruth was a driving force in the foundation and evolution of Mattel.
In 1947, Mattel had its first bestselling toy, the “Uke-A-Doodle”, a miniature ukulele. Madsen left the company shortly after and Ruth and Elliot created a hand operated music box inserted into a toy. Yes, this toy is the jack in the box, the toy that is a favorite of generations of children. Ruth and Elliot also capitalized on the western cowboy craze monopolizing shows of the day and created a toy gun called the burp gun. Ruth certainly had her finger on the pulse of popular culture!

Today there are many television shows specifically geared to children and teenagers. That was not the case in Ruth’s time. So when the Walt Disney company announced the Mickey Mouse Club Series in 1955, Ruth recognized her golden opportunity. She knew that almost every child in North America would be tuned in to watch this show. Ruth gambled on her instincts and invested much of her family’s resources to obtain sole sponsorship of the Mickey Mouse television series. That meant that every commercial on the Mickey Mouse program was an advertisement for a Mattel toy. That meant that during every commercial, kids would be watching other kids play with a Mattel toy they wanted for themselves and would then bug their parents to buy for them. This marketing approach was a game changer. It shifted the toy consumer from the parent to the child. Because the Mickey Mouse show ran all year, it also created a year round, rather than just the Christmas/Chanukah seasonal demand for toys. More specifically, it created a year round demand for Mattel toys.
During this period, Ruth was still thinking about her idea for an adult doll. While on a family vacation in Switzerland in 1956, Ruth saw a doll in a gift shop which she recognized as the prototype concept she had imagined for her adult Barbie doll. She brought the sample home to be mass produced as the very first adult like doll in America. Barbie debuted at the New York toy fair in March 1959. Marketed on the Mickey Mouse show, Barbie skyrocketed to success, as did her boyfriend Ken, who was introduced two years later.

Barbie has survived the test of time. It is for this reason that, in 1976, she was placed in the American government’s time capsule as a meaningful representative of that period in history. Barbie was conceived of as a teenage fashion model but her popularity has maintained because she has kept pace with the prevailing culture of the day. During the John F. Kennedy presidency, she had a Jackie hairdo. In the Martin Luther King era, she had an Afro American friend. When feminist criticisms surfaced in the 1960’s and 1970’s, her career choices changed to become more gender neutral. For example, Barbie was an astronaut four years before Neil Armstrong ever walked on the moon. Barbie became a cultural icon, an ever evolving reflection of North American society with professional careers, political endeavors and clothes to mirror these shifts. Ruth would likely be bursting with pride to learn that Barbie has maintained this status. This past International Women’s Day 2018, new dolls were introduced to help empower girls to close the “dream gap”. These 2018 dolls are inspirational role models like Amelia Earhart, the first American pilot to cross the Atlantic and Katherine Johnson, the Afro American mathematician who helped to send the first man into space. Tessa Virtue, Canada’s figure skating gold medalist is also being honoured with a Barbie doll in her likeness because she too has shown that, with perseverance and hard work, girls can do or be anything they want. In honour of Barbie’s 60th birthday March 2019, Mattel announced it was launching updates of firefighter and pilot Barbies, careers which are apparently “still underrepresented by women today” (InStyle magazine March 2019). Ruth Handler’s belief that through the doll “a girl can be anything” has expanded beyond even her wildest expectations.

A personal point of interest. I had a chance to experience firsthand the everlasting appeal of Barbie this past August 2018. Barbie was the headliner for an exhibition in Helsinki Finland while my husband and were vacationing there. Our tour guide made it very clear to us that his ten year old daughter and her friends loved Barbie and the values she represented. Ruth’s Barbie doll was, and still is, a metaphor for the changing role of women in society.
Ruth’s story does not end with Barbie or with her resigning as President of Mattel. In 1970, she had a modified mastectomy for breast cancer. She could not find a suitable artificial breast replacement. Ruth being Ruth, she decided to form a company to develop and make her own prosthesis which she called the Nearly Me. Before Ruth, there was only one prosthetic for both the right and left breast. As Ruth once said “even a shoemaker knows you have to make shoes for both a right and left foot if you want a proper fit.” Ruth personally fitted Betty Ford when she was first lady of the United States. Quite an accomplishment for a woman of Ruth’s day to start two businesses in one lifetime!
Ruth Handler was a marketing genius who had a major influence in the development of modern branding and advertising. She tapped into the power of television and used this resource to reach her clientele, the children, directly. She was also responsible for galvanizing the movement for early detection of breast cancer and for heightening public awareness of the importance of a well fitting breast prosthetic to a woman’s self esteem.
Self esteem was also Ruth’s goal in developing the Barbie doll. According to Ruth, and the new Barbie tagline “When a girl plays with Barbie she imagines everything she can become” (quoted in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, March 2019) Ruth’s enduring influence is simple. Her Barbie doll allows young girls to dream big and practise taking risks.



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