Toy-industry icon Ruth Handler gave girls around the globe more than just a pretty new plaything.
She introduced women of the future to an inspirational role model.
Handler co-founded toymaking giant Mattel in 1945. She is proclaimed the mother of Barbie.
The lithe, buxom, 11½-inch tall bombshell doll was introduced in 1959.
MEET THE AMERICAN WHO LAUNCHED MODERN SUBMARINES, JOHN PHILIP HOLLAND, ‘BRILLIANT SELF-TAUGHT ENGINEER
Barbie’s grown-up female features stunned the doubtful male-run toy-industry establishment. Yet Barbie proved one of the most successful toys – one of the most successful consumer products – in history.
“I wanted to create a doll that showed girls … that they could be anything,” Handler is often quoted as saying.
She provides her own inspirational real-life story of female empowerment greater than Barbie’s imaginary dream world.
“Ruth had moxie. She was a great salesperson. She was this natural-born entrepreneur,” Handler biographer Robin Gerber told Fox News Digital.
“I wanted to create a doll that showed girls … that they could be anything.” — Ruth Handler
Gerber is the author of the 2009 book “Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.”
She added of Handler, “She had the kind of ability to plow through whatever the obstacle was — and whatever the obstacle was often related to being a woman.”
Handler’s tale of a female trailblazer in male-dominated global business has generated renewed attention this year with the box-office success of the “Barbie” movie.
It stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and male sidekick Ken.
Rhea Perlman makes a late cameo as gray-haired Handler.
The entrepreneur’s legendary success as the woman who breathed life into Barbie is well-known.
ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY, MARCH 9, 1959, BARBIE MAKES FASHIONABLE WORLD DEBUT AT NEW YORK TOY FAIR
She also faced and rose above major professional and personal challenges.
Handler survived breast cancer in 1970. She was deposed from the leadership of Mattel in 1975 amid scandal and pleaded no contest to federal fraud charges in 1978. And her legacy was attacked this year by an allegation that the credit for Barbie actually belongs to another Mattel executive.
A ‘great American immigrant story’
Ruth Marianna Moskowicz was born on Nov. 4, 1916 in Denver, Colorado, to Polish-Jewish immigrants Jacob and Ida Moskowicz, the youngest of 10 kids.
She suffered a difficult childhood.
Her parents spoke only Yiddish while her mother was struck by debilitating illness soon after young Ruth was born.
“At the age of six months, Ruth was sent to live with her older sister Sarah and Sarah’s husband and stayed with them until she was 19,” reports the Jewish Women’s Archive website.
Sarah was 20 years older than Ruth; the sister was effectively her mother.
The archive added, “It was in Sarah’s drugstore/soda fountain that she first developed her enthusiasm for business.”
“Ruth had moxie. She was a great salesperson. She was this natural-born entrepreneur.” — Robin Gerber, biographer
Handler’s ability to overcome daunting circumstances represents a largely untold aspect of her journey to success, said Gerber. “It’s the great American immigrant story,” she said.
Ruth married Elliot Handler, also from Denver, in 1938. The young couple moved to the Los Angeles area and proved a dynamic business duo.
Elliott Handler was an artist who served nearby with the U.S. Army during World War II.
“On weekends home from wartime duties at Camp Robert, California, Elliot made toy furniture for Ruth to sell,” PBS reported in its “Who Made America” series.
Ruth Handler proved a natural. She landed her first sale at a gift shop on Wilshire Boulevard. Many more followed.
MARRIED COUPLE FIGHTS AFTER 75-POUND DOG REFUSES TO LEAVE THE HUSBAND’S SIDE – EVEN IN BED
By the mid-1940s the Handlers were taking in $2 million per year — about $34 million in 2023 dollars — according to several reports.
The formed Mattel in 1945, while World War II still raged overseas, with partner Harold “Matt” Matson; the name was a combination Matt and Elliot.
“The company that would eventually become one of the world’s leading toy manufacturers began rather inauspiciously in a garage in El Segundo, California,” writes Entrepreneur.com.
Ruth Handler proved a driving and fearless force. “She was a risk taker,” said Gerber.
Handler, most notably, made one of the most daring bets in modern business history.
She risked Mattel’s entire future on a new medium, television, a new program, Walt Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club,” and a new concept in advertising: marketing toys directly to children.
“In 1955, Mattel, still a fledgling firm with annual sales of only $6,000,000, decided to move into toy burp guns,” Time magazine wrote in a 1962 report on the company’s surging sales, under the headline “All’s Swell at Mattel.”
“The company that would eventually become one of the world’s leading toy manufacturers began rather inauspiciously in a garage.”
“Anxious to give the new product a big advertising sendoff, the Handlers nervously agreed to sponsor ‘Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club’ show for a year, at a cost of $500,000.”
The investment represented the entire net worth of the company. It paid off better than even the fearless Handler might have imagined.
The campaign did more than just boost Mattel’s profits and profile.
The deal “revolutionized the $2-billion-a-year U.S. toy industry,” Time wrote in that same 1962 report.
The campaign promoted Mattel as hard as its individual products, proving Handler’s grasp of branding as much as product pitching.
MEET THE AMERICAN WHO INVENTED THE FOLDING BEACH CHAIR, FREDRICK ARNOLD, WWII HERO, INNOVATOR, ARTIST, ACTOR
It was a watershed moment in American consumer culture.
At a time when America’s post-war economic boom was empowering teenage consumers with rock ‘n’ roll and auto obsession, Mattel is widely seen as the first company to market toys directly to children and not their parents, note several sources.
Barbie takes world by storm
Handler and Mattel would revolutionize the industry even further before the decade was out.
Barbie, Handler’s daring new grown-up doll, made its debut on March 9, 1959, at the International Toy Fair in New York City.
Barbie wore a zebra-striped black-and-white swimsuit plus over-sized sunglasses, with her long hair — blonde or brunette — in a carefree beach-ready ponytail.
“Unlike most dolls at the time, Barbie was a grown-up — a teenage fashion model who could date, drive and wear fabulous clothes,” writes the National Museum of American History.
BEING BARBIE: WOMAN IS SELF-PROCLAIMED ‘PLUS-SIZED BARBIE DOLL AND PROUD OF IT
The doll was named for the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara. The first Barbie dolls cost $3 each. Mattel sold 300,000 in the first year alone. Her sidekick Ken was introduced in 1961, named after the Handlers’ son.
“I discovered something very important,” Handler wrote in her memoir, “Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story,” about watching girls at play.
“They were using these dolls to project their dreams of their own futures as adult women … Wouldn’t it be great if we could take that play pattern and three-dimensionalize it?”
Barbie’s success defied the predictions of the mostly male skeptics in the toy industry.
“Barbie was unlike the baby and toddler dolls that were popular at the time,” Mattel writes in its online history.
“But Barbie took the world by storm, letting girls imagine their futures like never before from that moment on.”
Handler was inspired by a trip to Germany.
“She spotted the Bild Lilli doll, who was an adult doll based off a comic strip,” the magazine of auction house Barnebys writes in its history of “the world’s most popular doll.”
“The inventors of the Bild Lilli doll sued Mattel for copyright infringement, but Mattel ended up buying the rights for Bild Lilli in 1963 for $21,600 (equivalent to over $200,000 today).”
With the “Barbie” movie reigniting interest in the product this year, Handler’s legacy recently came under attack.
Ann Ryan, a podcaster and daughter of former Mattel executive John “Jack” Ryan, claimed last month that he, and not Handler, was the true force behind Barbie.
BARBIE BOMBSHELL: ORIGIN OF AMERICA’S FAVORITE DOLL DISPUTED BY MISSILE DEFENSE DESIGNER’S DAUGHTER
“From 1959 when Barbie debuted, until 1991 when my father died, Ruth Handler never said anything about how she was the creator of Barbie,” Ryan said in an exclusive interview last month with Fox News Digital.
“She waited until he died.”
She cites the patent applications for Barbie showing her father’s name and not Handler’s name.
Gerber flatly rejected Ryan’s claim, noting that Handler and Mattel never hid the European inspiration behind Barbie.
“He (Jack Ryan) did not in any way come up with the idea or design the doll,” said the author.
“She brought the doll back from Germany and told him to copy the idea.”
A legacy bigger than Barbie
Ruth Handler died on April 27, 2002, after suffering from colon cancer, in Century City, California. She was 85 years old.
Handler is buried at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City.
Barbie, her most famous legacy, is now a multimedia, multicultural role model for girls around the world. Mattel has sold more than 1 billion Barbies over the years.
Barbie’s influence on American and global pop culture phenomenon has never been more evident than it has been in 2023.
Mattel has sold more than 1 billion Barbies over the years.
The “Barbie” movie has raked in more than $575 million in the domestic box office (as of Aug. 24), making it the top-grossing movie of 2023, according to Variety. It’s grossed $1.3 billon globally.
But Barbie is not Handler’s only legacy — perhaps not even her most important legacy.
Handler suffered breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in 1970.
She responded to the trauma by founding a new company, Ruthton Corporation, to create modern prosthetics to help women overcome the physical and psychological scars of mastectomy.
First lady Betty Ford was among the company’s first customers. Handler sold the company to health and beauty conglomerate Kimberly-Clark in 1991.
“When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts.” — Ruth Handler
“When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts,” Handler said in a 1980 interview, according to the website of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
“Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs.”
Handler and her supporters say the battle with breast cancer impacted her ability to run a company, which had grown to 15,000 employees.
She resigned from her role as president of Mattel in 1973, a position she held since 1945, amid growing scandal.
She and her husband were ousted from the company in 1975.
CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP FOR OUR LIFESTYLE NEWSLETTER
Handler and other Mattel executives were charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and making false financial statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1978.
She pleaded no contest and was fined $57,000 and sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service.
Her commitment to empowering girls and women did not end with the scandal, however.
“She went on the lecture circuit to promote her product and tell women about the importance of early detection and regular mammograms,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in its obituary of Handler.
“I didn’t make a lot of money in it,” she is quoted as saying about the prosthetics business.
“It sure rebuilt my self-esteem, and I think I rebuilt the self-esteem of others.”
To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here.
Source: Fox News