Barbie Wiki

Ruth Handler in 1950

Ruth Handler (1916-2002), creator of the Barbie doll, founded Mattel, Inc. with husband Elliot Handler, and revolutionized the doll industry. The voluptuous Barbie became an American icon that surpassed in sales all the rest of Mattel's product line. After undergoing a mastectomy, Handler developed "Nearly Me" a lifelike breast prosthesis and another success that revealed her understanding of the deep connection between female body image and self-esteem.


The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Europe, Handler developed an entrepreneurial spirit when she was younger in Denver (the States), working at the family's soda fountain. She married her high school sweetheart in 1938, and they merged family and business. With partner Harold Matson, they launched Mattel — a name derived from Matson and Elliot, the male owners' names. Mattel capitalized on the popular culture of the 1950s in toys such as "Uke a doodle" and toy guns inspired by the fad for TV westerns.

In 1955, Handler advocated that Mattel sponsor Disney's popular Mickey Mouse Club, a bold stroke that led to the promoting of toys on children's television programs. This shapeshifted the toy industry from a seasonal to a year-round sales operation. In 1959, while watching her daughter play with paper dolls, Handler conceived the idea of a grown-up "doll with breasts." Barbie has dominated the doll market ever since. By 1970, Mattel, founded as a modest family venture, topped $350 million in annual sales. In 1975 after the SEC found that Mattel had overstated its earnings, the family parted with their company. Ruth Handler went on to establish "Nearly Me", a fitting culmination to the career of a woman who created the first doll with breasts.

Nearly Me[]

Handler with-prosthetic

Ruth with her prosthetic design

After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970, Handler underwent a mastectomy that left her physically and emotionally scarred. Unable to find a satisfactory breast prosthesis, she launched an enlightened new venture, "Nearly Me". She engaged former members of the Mattel design and production teams to create comfortable and well-fitting artificial breasts, then hired for her business only women who had experienced a mastectomy. She cleverly marketed the prosthesis to the fashionable Neiman Marcus store by emphasizing that the store would perform a valuable community service while attracting a new clientele.

"When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl's self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost thiers." -Ruth Handler

Balancing Work and Family Life[]

Handler Dude-Ranch

Left to right: Barbara (Barbie), Elliot, Ruth and Ken Handler on holiday at Double U Ranch, Tucson, Arizona circa 1950s.

The couple's children, Barbara and Ken, the inspiration for the doll names, were born during the WWII years. Ruth Handler faced a conflict between work and motherhood. Barbara wanted her mother to be an ordinary mom, but Handler could not imagine life away from the fast-paced business world. In an era when the post-war ideal for women was the stay-at-home mom, Handler continued to work, but rearranged her schedule to have more family time.


She died in April 27, 2002, at age 85, in California from complications during surgery for colon cancer.