You go girl! At 50, Barbie still shines brightest

original, first barbie
The 1959 Ponytail Barbie doll
no. 1 (the first Barbie produced) has sold for as much as $25,000 in mint condition.
black barbie
Black Barbie doll was released in 1980. Value: $100 MIB.
airlines barbie
The Pan American Airlines Stewardess is a rare bird indeed. Introduced in 1966, she is featured with a blue-gray twill suit with a slim skirt. The jacket is somewhat fitted with six buttons in two groups of three on front and three buttons on the back vents. A metal Pan American emblem can be found just below the collar. The matching pillbox hat with emblem and white edging was often lost and remains hard to find. Value: $4,000 MIP (doll not included)
easter parade barbie
Introduced in 1959, the Easter Parade (#971) outfit is one of the three most desirable outfits from the 900 series. (The others are Gay Parisienne #964 and Roman Holiday #968.) The apple print, polished cotton sheath dress was combined with a smart black spring coat. Barbie’s headband hat was a simple bow fashioned from silk organza. Other accessories included a black patent clutch bag, graduated “pearl” necklace, matching earrings, short white gloves and black open-toe pumps. Value $4,000 MIP (doll not included)
black barbie
Starlight Splendor Barbie doll, 1991. Value: $500 MIB
barbie doll field guide
Warman’s Barbie Doll Field Guide, ON SALE at

Little could Ruth Handler have realized her first attempt at doll making would help create not only a fabulous doll, but also a touchstone of cultural politics and one of the most amazing success stories in the history of children’s toys. Not bad for a woman who was simply trying to give her daughter something fun to play with.

With Handler as the catalyst, Mattel’s first Barbie doll—named after Handler’s daughter, Barbara—debuted at the American International Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959. The 11 1/2-inch, fresh-faced doll with a ponytail and a black-and-white striped swimsuit became an instant hit, selling more than 350,000 units its first year.

Since then, more than 1 billion Barbie dolls have been sold in 150 countries. First introduced as a teenage fashion model, Barbie has enjoyed an endless and varied career path in the past five decades. She’s been everything from an astronaut to a paleontologist to a presidential candidate.

“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Handler wrote in her 1994 autobiography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

“Over and over I’ve had it said to me by women she was much more than a doll for them. She was part of them,” Handler, who with her husband Elliot launched Mattel in 1945, told The Associated Press.

Before her death in 2002 at the age of 85, Ruth Handler fashioned not only a wonderful toy for little girls, but also one of the most popular and prized collectibles in the toy market. A Ponytail Barbie doll no. 1 has sold for as much as $25,000 in mint condition. Not bad for a doll that originally sold for $3.

Part of the reason Barbie has reached such amazing value on the secondary market is that over time the doll has become woven into the fabric of our society. Consider that in 1976, as the country celebrated its Bicentennial, Barbie was placed in the official “America’s Time Capsule” so future generations would be ensured the pleasure of her acquaintance.

It’s important to remember Barbie doll’s birth came in the 1950s, a time when Americans reaped the benefits of a strong, postwar economy. We liked “Ike” in the White House and Milton Berle on TV. “Ben-Hur” commanded Best Picture recognition, while teen idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon broke hearts. Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union, and Detroit’s new cars featured big, bold tailfins.

In this backdrop the baby boom generation took shape, and so did Barbie.

The inspiration for Barbie came as Handler watched her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls. Barbara and her friends liked to play adult or teenage make-believe with the paper dolls, imagining them in roles as college students, cheerleaders and adults with careers. Handler recognized that experimenting with the future from a safe distance through play was an important part of growing up. She also noticed a void and was determined to fill that niche with a three-dimensional fashion doll.

Over the years, Barbie has achieved the title of the most popular fashion doll ever created. She’s held that title by changing with the times. With fashion and teenage lifestyle trends evolving at a startling rate, Mattel had its hands full keeping the doll current. Styles changed dramatically from Paris couture to the inspired elegance of the Jackie Kennedy years of the early 1960s to a more free-flowing, youthful look of the late 1960s.

When the Beatles led the “British Invasion” in 1964 they brought with them (in addition to a new sound) hemlines way up and hair way down as teenagers adopted the “Carnaby Street” look. Barbie went “Mod” a few years later with new face sculpting in 1967, which brought her current with the next generation of little girls. 

In the 1970s, Barbie wore up-to-the-minute fashions reflecting the “prairie” look, the “granny” dress, the “California Girl” suntan craze and the glittery styles of the “disco” years. By the end of the decade, Barbie’s face was again re-sculpted to a wide smile and sun-streaked hair showcasing the beauty trends of the day.

In the 1980s, Barbie was an aerobics instructor, a briefcase-carrying power executive, and a couture-inspired sophisticate reflecting the popularity of nighttime soap operas (“Dallas,” “Knots Landing,” and “Dynasty”). And in the late 1990s, the Barbie doll stepped into the world of sports as a professional basketball player, a racecar driver, a World Cup soccer player and an Olympic swimmer.

While sometimes questioned by feminists for what they considered her unrealistic beauty and well-endowed physique, Barbie often opened little girls’ eyes to what might be. She was a college graduate in 1963, a surgeon in 1973, a business executive in 1986, a “Summit Diplomat” and airline pilot in 1990, and a presidential candidate in 1992. Consider that she was an astronaut in 1965, nearly 20 years before Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space aboard the shuttle Challenger in 1983.

Along the way, Barbie doll has had a supporting cast that began with boyfriend Ken in 1961. Ken, by the way, was named after Ruth and Elliot Handler’s son. Her best friend Midge was first introduced in 1963. Barbie’s little sister, Skipper, was introduced in 1964, while twins Tutti and Todd arrived in 1966. Sisters Stacie and Kelly were introduced in 1992 and 1995, respectively, and baby sister Krissy in 1999. Cultural diversity has also been a part of her life. In 1968, Barbie’s black friend Christie was introduced; in 1988 Teresa, a Hispanic doll was unveiled; and in 1990, an Asian friend, Kira, entered the world of Barbie. In 1997, Share a Smile Becky, Barbie’s friend in a wheelchair, was introduced. Kayla, Barbie’s multi-ethnic friend, appeared in 2002.

Barbie has come a long way from Ruth Handler’s simple mission to create a toy for her daughter. Today, both children and adults collect her with passion and glee. Aging gracefully while still remaining vital has been a keystone of Mattel’s Barbie doll for 50 years. And it’s unlikely the doll will lose its glow anytime soon.

Photos courtesy Warman’s® BarbieTM Doll Field Guide

Special thanks to Sandi Holder for photo contributions. Sandi is the owner of Sandi Holder’s Doll Attic (