American businessperson Ruth Handler (1916–2002) changed the face of the toy industry with her introduction of the Barbie doll in 1959. Co–founder of the Mattel toy company, Handler was also noted for her marketing innovations. She later went on to a successful second career in the prosthetic breast business. At the time of Handler's death, there had been over a billion Barbies sold in 150 countries.
Child of Immigrants
Handler was born on November 4, 1916, in Denver, Colorado. She was the youngest of ten children born to Jacob and Ida Mosko, Polish immigrants who had traveled to the United States on a steamship. Her father was a blacksmith who had fled Poland to avoid serving in the Russian army and her mother was in frail health, leaving much of her youngest's rearing to the child's older siblings. Interestingly, the young Handler did not like playing with dolls. She did, however, learn the benefits of a job well done as her parents fortunes improved and she earned tips working in their drugstore.
At 16, Handler met her future husband, Isadore Elliot Handler, at a B'nai B'rith dance in Denver. Three years later, she moved to Los Angeles, and he soon joined her there to attend the Art Center School of Design. The couple briefly returned to Denver to be married at the former Park Lane Hotel in 1938, but Southern California was home to them for the rest of their lives together.
Handler first took a job as a secretary at Paramount Studios, while her husband studied and began designing household products such as bookends and candle holders. Before long, the couple's first company, Elzac (named for Elliot and a financial partner named Zachary), came into being. Elzac's line was expanded to include giftware and costume jewelry, and the company gradually became a $2 million business, but the Handlers were not satisfied.
In 1942, the Handlers joined forces with another designer, Harold "Matt" Matson, to manufacture picture frames. That business, started in the couple's garage, branched out to include doll house furniture made out of scraps from the picture frame enterprise. Using yet another merger of the name Elliot and a partner's name, the company was called Mattel. It turned a profit in 1945 and the Handlers found themselves in the toy business.
One of Mattel's first successful products was a toy ukulele called the Uke–A–Doodle. Its release in 1947 was also a learning experience for the Handlers, as they discovered ways to attain patent protection and thwart imitators. They played to their individual strengths as well, with Handler in charge of marketing and her husband heading up product design. (Matson was bought out very early in the game). Together, the talented couple managed a series of innovations that helped put Mattel on the map. For example, Mattel was the first company to make toys out of a mixture of materials. Additionally, the Handlers were quick to realize the advantages of recycling components in a variety of toys, such as placing a music box in a jack–in–the–box. Paul Lukas of Fortune Small Business quoted Handler from her 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll, "We'd developed a basic mechanism around which new products could be designed year after year." But it may be that Mattel's most revolutionary advancement was the use of television in its advertising.
In the 1950s, television was still in its infancy. The advertising of toys was still primarily through catalogs and trade shows, and generally focused on the Christmas season. The Handlers changed all that in 1955 when Mattel offered to buy a year's exclusive sponsorship of ABC's new program, The Mickey Mouse Club. The show was a hit, and sales of Mattel's Mouseguitar and Burp Gun went through the roof. A brand new toy advertising style was born, and Handler's later wry characterization of herself, cited by the Economist, was hardly an exaggeration. "I was a marketing genius," she said.
Baby dolls had come into vogue in the late 19th century and remained in fashion in the 1950s. Handler, however, had noticed that her daughter had little interest in playing with them, preferring instead to dress up adult paper dolls and pretend to be grown up. Thus inspired, she pitched the idea of a manufacturing an adult doll to her company, but met repeated resistance from Mattel's predominately male sales force and executives. "Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future," Handler said in a 1977 New York Times interview quoted by Sarah Kershaw in the same paper in 2002. "If she was going to do role playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest." Then in 1956, she found a voluptuous German doll in Switzerland. Unbeknownst to Handler, the doll was intended for an adult male audience, but its original purpose was to be far overshadowed by its evolution at Mattel.
Using the German doll as a model, Mattel designers spent three years creating the doll of Handler's dreams. The finished product, an 11 and 1/2 inch blonde with an improbable figure and permanently high heels, made her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. Officially called "Barbie Teenage Fashion Model" (Barbie was the Handlers' daughter's name), the doll did not thrill the show's buyers. But Handler was vindicated by the delighted reception of little girls. 351,000 Barbie dolls were sold that first year, a sales record for Mattel, and it took the company a full three years to begin to keep up with demand. The fortunes of Barbie and Mattel had become inexorably entwined.
The success of Barbie soon led to the creation of her boyfriend, Ken (named after the Handlers' son). With time, other friends and family were produced, along with hundreds of outfits and accessories. The latter were no small part of the business, as Handler's husband pointed out in the Barbie Chronicles (cited by Lukas). "You get hooked on one, and you have to buy the other. Buy the doll, and then you buy the clothes. I know a lot of parents hate us for this, but it's going to be around a long time." And right he was. Barbie's popularity continued to grow so that by the year 2002, over a billion dolls had been sold in 150 countries. She had been showcased in the Smithsonian Institution and included in the official U.S. bicentennial time capsule. Fan clubs, magazines, and collectors obsessed about her. Yet, Barbie did have her detractors.
Handler's hit doll drew fire from feminists and others, who were concerned that Barbie's unlikely proportions sent the wrong message to young girls. Her measurements, if translated to a woman of 5–foot–6, would have been 39–21–33, an extremely rare occurrence in the natural world. But Handler maintained that Barbie, whose numerous "careers" had ranged from ballerina to surgeon to rock star, was all about giving girls options. The Times of London quoted her thoughts on the matter from her autobiography: "My whole philosophy of Barbie was that(,) through the doll(,) the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices." Whatever her faults, Barbie became an American icon.
Triumphed, Failured, and Challenged
Mattel continued to be a market leader throughout the 1960s. The company scored wins with such toys as 1960's Chatty Cathy, who talked, the educational toy series, See 'N Say, and the Hot Wheels miniature car line, introduced in 1968. Investors were pleased as the $10 share price of 1960 zoomed to $522.50 at the stock's pinnacle in 1971. Such heady times did not last, however.
Business woes began with the failure of a battery–powered miniature car line called Sizzlers. This was compounded by Mattel's expensive acquisitions of such diverse enterprises as a pet supply company and the Ringling Brothers–Barnum & Bailey Circus. Combined, the troubles caused the company to post its very first loss in 1971, and yet another the following year. The losses led to shareholder lawsuits and an SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) inquiry that revealed accounting irregularities. In 1975, the Handlers were forced out of the company they had founded, although they denied any knowledge of wrongdoing. Difficulties came to another peak in 1978, when Handler was indicted for fraud and false reporting to the SEC. Still maintaining her innocence, she pled no contest, and was fined and sentenced to community service. Disappointing as all the business upheaval undoubtedly was though, it paled against the parallel challenges facing Handler.
In 1970, just as Mattel was heading for problems, Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a modified radical mastectomy. She later blamed the worry and distractions of the disease on her trials at work. Luckily, Handler was able to turn even such a devastating experience as serious illness into a positive.
After her mastectomy, Handler was frustrated in her efforts to find a suitable prosthetic breast. The unappealing and limited options ranged from rolled up gloves or stockings to shapeless blobs that bore little resemblance to the real thing. According to Veronica Horwell of the Guardian, Handler concluded that "the people in this business are men who don't have to wear these." So, she set about to change things.
With the help of expert craftsman Peyton Massey, Handler designed a line of realistic artificial breasts fashioned from foam and silicon. She called the product "Nearly Me" and formed the Ruthton Corporation to sell it. Intent on demystifying what was a taboo subject in the 1970s, Handler became an outspoken advocate for early detection of breast cancer and offered her prosthetics as a way for women to feel good about themselves again. One rather unorthodox method she used to get her point across was to open her blouse during interviews, demanding that the interviewer physically determine which of her breasts was real. She also arranged showings of Nearly Me at upscale department stores and made certain that sales staffs were properly trained in fitting the product. As Elaine Woo of the Newark Star–Ledger quoted, Handler's unabashed goal was to enable breast cancer survivors to ". . . wear a regular brassiere and blouse, stick her chest out(,) and be proud."
Handler made the business a successful one, counting former First Lady Betty Ford among her many customers, before selling it to a division of Kimberly–Clark in 1991. But profit was not really her motive in this second career. Horwell quoted her saying, "I didn't make a lot of money in it. It sure rebuilt my self–esteem, and I think I rebuilt the self–esteem of others." And she was not unaware of the ironic connection between Barbie and Nearly Me. As Lukas noted, Handler was fond of saying, "I've gone from breast to breast."
Handler spoke of her life's challenges at a luncheon for the Allied Jewish Federation Women's Department in her hometown in 1996. One of the things she said, according to Joanne Davidson of the Denver Post, was, "I like to think of my life as an impossible dream. We've had a lot of nightmares, but we've always been able to pick up and move on." Perhaps even more to the point was her husband's comment to People Weekly upon Handler's death on April 26, 2002. "She was brilliant and brave," he said.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 3, 2002.
Denver Post, February 5, 1996.
Economist, May 4, 2002.
Guardian (London, England), May 2, 2002.
Investor's Business Daily, December 27, 2001.
New York Times, April 29, 2002.
People Weekly, May 13, 2002.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), April 28, 2002.
Times (London, England), April 29, 2002.
"Mattel: Toy Story," Fortune Small Business,http://www.fortune.com/fortune/smallbusiness/articles/0,15114,433766-1,00.html (November 30, 2004).
"Handler, Ruth." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/handler-ruth
"Handler, Ruth." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/handler-ruth