10 Things You Didn’t Know: Elliot Handler, Hot Wheels inventor and co-founder Mattel Toys

1. Few couples seemed more destined to be together, both personally and professionally, than Ruth and Elliot Handler. But if Elliot Handler’s father had not contracted tuberculosis, forcing a family relocation to Colorado, it’s unlikely Elliot ever would have encountered his great partner in life, Ruth Mosko of Denver.

2. If Ruth Mosko’s parents hadn’t decided to take their daughter on a trip to California, where she fell in love with the Golden State almost as deeply as she fell for Elliot Handler and in fact quickly decided to move there, Handler would not have had a reason to follow her there, where he found a school that taught industrial design engineering.
hot wheels elliot handler
3. As an artist, Elliot Handler’s career goal then was to design modern furniture and household items.
4. The new plastic called Lucite was a major inspiration for Handler. His sleek creations were made of plastic and metal.

5. When the United States became an Allied power in the war against Japan and Germany, the war effort demanded all the metal and plastic that could be manufactured. With those materials no longer available, Handler began working in other mediums.

6. With scraps of Lucite and wood at his disposal, Handler began creating jewelry, building a successful company with Zachary Zemby called Elzac. If the additional money partners who came on board would have agreed to eventually expand the business repertoire into other kinds of products, Handler probably would not have left … to co-found Mattel.

barbie elliot handler7. Much has been made of the Handlers’ daughter Barbara being the Barbie doll’s namesake, but Barbara Handler Segal was far more important than that. If she’d never been born, if the Handlers hadn’t had a daughter, it’s unlikely Barbie would have been either, since seeing their daughter’s boredom playing with baby dolls and paper dolls was the inspiration for inventing a more exciting and unusual plaything.

8. The Handlers’ perseverance when it came to the now iconic Barbie doll is a great life lesson for everyone, demonstrating if you believe strongly in something, it can pay off enormously even when all signs point to a negative outcome. Barbie gave Handler many sleepless nights, not just during the period when he lived with other Mattel men at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo while having her developed (a tedious process full of frustrations), but even when she debuted at Toy Fair and her reception among buyers was lukewarm at best.

9. Handler developed other products while in Japan during the Barbie ordeal, including Mattel Modern Furniture, somewhat large-scale wood doll-house pieces with a sort of Danish modern aesthetic. It was one of Handler’s only flops. He said they made the mistake of not enlisting Ruth Handler to develop a brilliant marketing campaign around the line or even targeting and tailoring the furnishings to Barbie.

10. The town in Japan where Handler and his colleagues had some of the Mattel playthings manufactured was named … wait for it … Toyama.

Kathy Flood
is a journalist who writes about jewelry for Antique Trader. She interviewed Elliot Handler five or six times over the course of several years for her book, “Elzac of Hollywood,” covering Handler’s jewelry and  gifts company. It will be published next year.

More from Antique Trader

Interview with Ruth and Elliot Handler