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Ruth Handler, Inventor of Barbie Doll, Dies at 85

April 28, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ruth Handler, the entrepreneur and marketing genius who co-founded Mattel and created the Barbie doll, one of the world's most enduring and popular toys, died Saturday.

Handler, 85, died at Century City Hospital in Los Angeles of complications following colon surgery about three months ago, said her husband, Elliot.

The longtime Southern California resident defied prevailing trends in the toy industry of the late 1950s when she proposed an alternative to the flat-chested baby dolls then marketed to girls.

Barbie, a teenage doll with a tiny waist, slender hips and impressive bust, became not only a best-selling toy with more than 1 billion sold in 150 countries, but a cultural icon analyzed by scholars, attacked by feminists and showcased in the Smithsonian Institution.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Handler obituary-The obituary of Barbie creator and Mattel Inc. co-founder Ruth Handler in Sunday's California section incorrectly stated the address of the organization designated by the family to receive memorial contributions. It is Stop Cancer, 1875 Century Park East, Suite 1740, Los Angeles, CA 90067.

Although best known for her pivotal role as Barbie's inventor, Handler devoted her later years to a second, trailblazing career: manufacturing and marketing artificial breasts for women who had undergone mastectomies.

Herself a breast cancer survivor, she personally sold and fitted the prosthesis and crisscrossed the country as a spokeswoman for early detection of the disease in the 1970s, when it was still a taboo subject.

Recognizing the continuity in her evolution from "Barbie's mom" to prosthesis pioneer, Handler sometimes quipped, "I've lived my life from breast to breast."

Born Ruth Mosko, she was the youngest of 10 children of Polish immigrants who settled in Denver. Her father was a blacksmith who deserted the Russian army. Her mother, who was illiterate, arrived in the United States in the steerage section of a steamship. Her mother's health was so frail that Handler was raised by an older sister.

When she was 19, she left Denver for a vacation in Hollywood and wound up staying. Her high school boyfriend, Elliot Handler, followed her west and married her in 1938. She worked as a secretary at Paramount Studios while he studied industrial design at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena).

When Elliot made some simple housewares to furnish their apartment, Ruth persuaded him to produce more for sale. They bought some workshop equipment from Sears and launched a giftware business in their garage, making items such as bowls, mirrors and clocks out of plastic. With Ruth showing the product line to local stores, sales reached $2 million within a few years.

In 1942 they teamed up with another industrial designer, Harold "Matt" Mattson, to launch a business manufacturing picture frames. Using leftover wood and plastic scrap, they later launched a sideline making dollhouse furniture. Within a few years, the company turned profitable and began to specialize in toys. It was called Mattel, a name fashioned from the "Matt" in Mattson and the "El" in Elliot.

Early successes were musical toys, such as the Uke-A-Doodle, a child-size ukulele, and a cap gun called the Burp gun, which the Handlers advertised on the new medium of television. It was the first time a toy had been sold on national television year-round.

In the late 1950s, Elliot was so preoccupied with the development of a talking doll--eventually marketed as Chatty Cathy--that he was of little help to Ruth when she came up with an idea of her own.

Noting their daughter Barbara's fascination with paper dolls of teenagers or career women, she realized there was a void in the market. She began to wonder if a three-dimensional version of the adult paper figures would have appeal. Why not sell a doll that allowed girls, as she would later say, to "dream dreams of the future"? This doll, she mused, would have to be lifelike. In other words, Handler believed, it would have to have breasts.

When she took the idea to Mattel's executives, who were men, they sneered that no mother would buy her daughter a grown-up doll with a bosom. "Our guys all said, 'Naw, no good,' " she recalled. "I tried more than once and nobody was interested, and I gave up."

Inspired by German Doll

She let the project idle until 1956 when, during a European vacation, she spied a German doll called Lilli in a display case. It had a voluptuous figure, reminiscent of the poster pinups that entertained soldiers during World War II. Handler brought the doll home to Mattel's designers and ordered them to draw up plans and find a manufacturer in Japan who could produce it.

Handler's dream made its debut at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City. Named for her daughter, "Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model" had a girl-next-door ponytail, black-and-white striped bathing suit and teeny feet that fit into open-toed heels. Mattel sold more than 350,000 the first year, and orders soon backed up for the doll, which retailed for $3. "The minute that doll hit the counter, she walked right off," Handler said.

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