Ruth Handler watched her daughter Barbara at play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyedgiving them adult roles. At the time, most children's toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel's directors.
During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children Barbara and Kenneth, Ruth Handler came across German toy doll called Bild Lilli. The adult-figured doll was exactly what Handler had in mind, so she purchased three of them. She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel. The Lilli doll was based on a popular character appearing in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Lilli was a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and although it was initially sold to adults, it became popular with children who enjoyed dressing her up in outfits that were available separately.
Upon her return to the United States, Handler reworked the design of the doll (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and the doll was given a new name, Barbie, after Handler's daughter Barbara. The doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. This date is also used as Barbie's official birthday.
Mattel acquired the rights to the Bild Lilli doll in 1964 and production of Lilli was stopped. The first Barbie doll wore a black and white zebra striped swimsuit and signature topknot ponytail, and was available as either a blonde or brunette. The doll was marketed as a "Teen-age Fashion Model," with her clothes created by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. The first Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Around 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.
Ruth Handler believed that it was important for Barbie to have an adult appearance, and early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll's chest, which had distinct breasts. Barbie's appearance has been changed many times, most notably in 1971 when the doll's eyes were adjusted to look forwards rather than having the demure sideways glance of the original model.
Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television advertising, which has been copied widely by other toys. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.
The standard range of Barbie dolls and related accessories are manufactured to approximately 1/6th scale, which is also known as playscale. Barbie products include not only the range of dolls with their clothes and accessories, but also a large range of Barbie branded goods such as books, apparel, cosmetics and video games. Barbie has appeared in a series of animated films and is a supporting character in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3.
Barbie has become a cultural icon and has been given honors that are rare in the toy world. In 1974 a section of Times Square in New York City was renamed Barbie Boulevard for a week. In 1985 the artist Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie.
In 2009, Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday. The celebrations included a runway show in New York for the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The event showcased fashions contributed by fifty well-known haute couturiers including Diane von Fürstenberg, Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Bob Mackie, and Christian Louboutin.