Vintage Barbie dolls: Taking a brand to heart

This exclusive excerpt is from the new book Barbie, A Rare Beauty by Sandi Holder (Krause Publications, 2010). Learn more at

She is us—and we are her. That affinity—that strong emotional connection—is likely the main reason the Barbie doll has become a successful global brand and a cultural icon for more than 50 years.

In the toy world, consumer tastes are fickle, and the stock on shop shelves is ever-changing. Few toys enjoy popularity for more than one or two years. An enduring few may become household names and last for 10, maybe 20 years. But rarely does a toy property endure half a century.

Collector Terminology

NRFB – Never Removed From Box

MIB – Mint In Box  (factory mint doll in original box)

MNB – Mint No Box (pristine doll, no box)

Secondary Market – The resale of Barbie dolls on
the collector market

Ponytail #1 – 1959 original Barbie, white irises, blue liner, holes in feet

That’s why Mattel’s Barbie doll—which had a tentative start in 1959 but an eventual and steady rise—has come to occupy its own rarified air in the world of toys. Say the word “Barbie” and nothing more need be said; everyone knows to whom you refer. And Barbie is indeed one of the world’s most familiar, and revered, brands.

In the world of toys—and in pop culture—the Barbie brand is evergreen. And despite fluctuations in its image and popularity over five decades, it retains a cachet other toymakers can only dream of for their lines.

“Barbie touches so many aspects of a girl’s psyche from adventure to independence to dreams of aspirations,” wrote Gene Del Vecchio, author of Creating Ever-Cool: A Marketer’s Guide to a Kid’s Heart, “that the emotional connections with the Barbie brand run deep.”

Del Vecchio, a marketing expert, was speaking about the synergy the doll has with its owners that has echoed true for five decades. An emotional connection with a toy is perhaps the best thing a toymaker can hope for; that may be just what Mattel co-founder and Barbie creator Ruth Handler had in mind. Creating that emotional bond didn’t happen overnight, however, and it took a healthy dose of change to bring the doll’s relationship with its fans to that point. And when change came, it made waves—waves that would prove necessary to the doll’s continuing success.

“From the very beginning, Mattel figured out that they needed to keep changing and evolving her style,” said Christopher Varaste, a Barbie collector and author from California. In constantly making changes, Mattel paved the way for future dolls and future incarnations. “It paved the way for Barbie to succeed,” Varaste added.

But Barbie didn’t change solely for the sake of change; she carefully followed—and sometimes predicted—societal trends. “Barbie reflects where we are and where we’ve just been,” said California Barbie dealer and author Joe Blitman. “She changes as we change. She’s a perfect mirror; she’s constantly being reinvented.”

Barbie’s reinventions over the years brought with them the loyalty of little girls. Some craved the hair play features of the 1980s dolls. Others coveted the doll’s glamorous gowns. Some sought the emotional connections embodied by Barbie, her family and her circle of friends.

With loyalty comes emotion—so it all comes back to emotional connections. And with Barbie, those connections have the power to span generations. Little girls playing with Fashion Fever Barbie dolls today may have mothers who adored their Superstar Barbie in the 1980s, and perhaps grandmothers who owned an original 1961 Bubblecut. “Our parents and grandparents have grown up with it,” said Mattel’s principal Barbie designer Sharon Zuckerman. “It’s been generations of people playing with it…and she’s just so beautiful.”

Blitman agreed—not only did generations embrace the Barbie doll, all genders did as well. “After 50 years, the doll is a part of so many people’s childhoods—male or female,” he said. Florida dealer and doll show promoter Marl Davidson noted, “Everybody can relate to her in one way or another, even boys. Their sisters played with them.”

No matter the connection—whether a personal, intimate memory or passing recollection—the Barbie name remains ingrained in the psyches of several generations. As Del Vecchio states in his book, “Even though the day may come when children outgrow the functional benefits of your brand, the feelings they have toward it will remain, buried deep within their adult psyches. Then, years later when these adults have children of their own, they will come back. They will remember the relationship.”

And that’s what Mattel has counted on, and thrived on. Today’s adults are avid collectors—fueling the secondary market for vintage dolls and engendering a love of the new dolls in their children and grandchildren. And so the circle of creating an “evergreen,”—or what Del Vecchio calls an “Ever-Cool”—brand continues.

After more than 50 years, Barbie remains ingrained in the pop culture consciousness.

As Blitman aptly said, “When you’ve been around that long, you take on a legendary aura. You become a touchstone.”

What’s Mattel’s secret to attaining such status for a mere plaything? Sure, product quality, market adaptability and viable marketing all play a role. But the real secret to Barbie’s success lies in the power of nostalgia and emotion. ?

Barbie: A Singular Sensation

Released just before the dawn of a new decade, the most prized Barbie doll by all collectors is known, simply, as Ponytail #1 (stock #850). Debuting at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City, Ponytail #1 has a secondary market value ranging from $4,000 to $9,000 depending on condition. The doll originally sold for $3.

Made of flesh-toned plastic, the first Barbie dolls wore a black and white knit swimsuit that was used through 1961. In 1959, the accessories were white sunglasses with blue lenses, black open-toe shoes and gold hoop earrings. The first several incarnations of Barbie were strikingly similar, with one exception— #1 had drilled holes in her feet and her shoes. The holes are lined with copper tubing and they allow her to fit into a special stand that came with the doll.

Ponytail #1 was available in blond or brunette hair. Brunette Ponytail #1 is more valued by collectors. The reason? There were fewer made. Value: $9,000 MIB ?

Blond Ponytail #1 Barbie

ponytail barbie number 1