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Ruth Handler’s Barbie doll was introduced to society at the New York Toy Fair on this date in 1959. Born Ruth Marianna Mosko in 1916 in Denver, Colorado, Handler was a child of immigrant parents from Poland. Her creation of Barbie (named after her daughter, Barbara) was designed as a quantum leap in how preadolescent girls approached doll play. Girls, Handler observed, were less interested in “mothering” their dolls than in projecting their sexual and social aspirations onto them. Over one billion Barbie dolls have been purchased since they first appeared, and at their height of popularity were reportedly sold worldwide at a rate of three per second. Facing significantly declining sales in recent years, Barbie’s manufacturer, the Mattel toy company (originally founded in 1945 to sell picture frames) has tried to adapt to cultural and demographic changes, offering a variety of Barbie skin tones, eye colors, and body types, and most recently issuing a new series of 17 dolls based on inspiring women, including Amelia Earhart and Frida Kahlo. Handler died in 2002 after a long struggle with breast cancer — a struggle that prompted her to design a breast prosthetic, “Nearly Me,” that was apparently a lot closer to natural than her famous doll’s original plastic bustline.
“My whole philosophy was that through the doll, a little girl could be anything she wanted to be. ” —Ruth Handler