Eleanor “Ellie” McCrackin
This article is time specific to July 21, 2023. A new summer blockbuster movie entitled Barbie is scheduled for release. It is almost certain that men who thought of themselves as “Ken,” and women who likely wished to be “Barbie” will clamber their way to theater box offices filled with curiosity.
What is “Barbie?” A toy, a fad, a phenomenon, a culture hiccup, or a genuine societal experience? The only sure thing is that someone or a group of someones are about to make money – big piles of money and only the IRS will be the wiser.
The answer may not be found in this narrative, but Barbie postcards will remain timeless and pertinent to collectors everywhere.
Turn your calendar back to the spring of 1959. The annual American Toy Fair is in full swing in New York City and the Mattel Corporation introduces to the world a twelve-inch-tall doll named “Barbie.” The dolls that came before were no match for the new sensation who had lots of hair, as well as arms, legs, and a head that could be posed. Barbie was not a baby doll. She is a full grown, curvy, young woman with a wardrobe that is the envy of each and every debutant.
The Mattel Corporation was founded in California in 1945 by Elliot and Ruth Handler and a somewhat silent partner (read, literary agent whose client list read like a “who-is-who” of mid-twentieth century writers) named Harold Matson. Today only Lego Group is a larger toy manufacturer. Mattel’s most recognized products are the Hot Wheels brand and the Barbie Doll.
The concept of a toy that would become Barbie was first imagined by Ruth Handler, Mattel’s co-founder after she observed her daughter playing with “teenager” paper dolls. The youngster seemed to delight in changing her doll’s paper clothes. Handler’s idea festered until the summer of 1955 when the family toured Europe. While in a German toy store, Handler found an adult doll named Bild Lilli meant to be a gag gift for men. A newspaper advertisement for the doll described her as a curvaceous blonde bombshell. The Aryan fantasy wore a tight white turtleneck, blue shorts, high-heeled shoes and has peroxide blond hair.
When Barbie came to market, she was well received but the critics thought that a mature doll with a curvy figure would shock toy buyers and she would be rejected by the public. With that in mind Elliot and Ruth Handler were one step ahead. They were adamant about the need for a mature doll and they went public through television and newspaper advertising. Their earliest ad appeared in the summer of 1959. It took only months for Barbie to reach the top of Christmas wish lists across the country. The risk they took paid off, and Barbie was instantly the hottest toy in America.
It may be politically incorrect to suggest that Ken is Barbie’s love-interest, but when he made his appearance as Kenneth Sean “Ken” Carson in 1961 to be a companion toy for Barbie, what else was there to think? Ken was a total fashion doll also invented by Ruth Handler and he was introduced by Mattel in 1961 as a mirror image and male counterpart.
As Barbie and Ken continued on their rise in popularity, Mattel added a long list of accessories, e.g., a dream house, a sports car and more and more clothing items. Mattel did everything to extend the trend with new and similar dolls, first came Midge, Barbie’s best friend, and then Skipper, Barbie’s little sister.
Difficult as it may be to realize, the new movie celebrates a 65th birthday. Perhaps the movie should be titled Barbie Goes on Social Security?
One constant in the Barbie story is the advertising postcard that has followed her through every imaginable career choice. The cards are location and occupation oriented – why not, Barbie has several careers: astronaut, artist, ballerina, chef, dancer, fashion editor, model, film director, interior designer, pianist, news anchor, photographer, politician, pilot, and that’s only half-the-alphabet.
The card images below is a very small sample of the Barbie postcards in the collection of a Massachusetts Barbie enthusiast who swears he buys Barbie postcard just to give to his granddaughter. Spoiler: his granddaughter is 43 years old.
If you see Barbie or Ken at the cinema, say, “Hello!”