When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Log in .

You've reached your limit of one free article.

Get unlimited access to Worldcrunch

You can cancel anytime .


Exclusive International news coverage

Ad-free experience NEW

Weekly digital Magazine NEW

9 daily & weekly Newsletters

Access to Worldcrunch archives

Free trial

30-days free access, then $2.90
per month.

Annual Access BEST VALUE

$19.90 per year, save $14.90 compared to monthly billing.save $14.90.

Subscribe to Worldcrunch

Barbie's Mom: How A Daughter Of Jewish Refugees From Poland Created An American Idol

The Barbie doll is known today as one of the world’s most iconic toys, featured in Greta Gerwig’s newly-released film. The doll was not expected to be a commercial success at all, but that didn’t stop creator Ruth Handler’s determination. Here is her story.

Ruth Handler, creator of the Barbie doll, with Barbie dolls.

Ruth Handler, creator of the Barbie doll, c. 1992.

Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute via JWA
Dominika Wantuch

WARSAW —“She thought that mothers would buy their daughters dolls that look like whores!” That's what toy company Mattel told Ruth Handler, when she first pitched her idea for Barbie. But it wasn’t Ruth, but Mattel, who was mistaken. This is how Handler, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Poland, broke into the world of toys and created the most famous doll in the world.

When Ruth had the idea to create a doll with long legs, a tiny waist, ample breasts, full painted lips, made-up eyes, who exuded sex appeal, everyone was in shock.

Her husband, the co-owner of Mattel, told it to her straight: “No mother will buy dolls with a bust for her daughter." Her co-workers were even more skeptical, and called Ruth crazy, and overly risky. Her greatest support came from competing companies, who prophesied the complete collapse of the company after Barbie’s introduction in 1959. A former Mattel worker, who left the company just as Barbie was about to be introduced to consumers, asked: “Can you believe what these madmen at Mattel did? They showed up on television, and thought that mothers would suddenly start buying their children dolls that look like whores.”

But Ruth did not give in to criticism. She believed in herself, her idea and her business intuition. As a woman, she believed that this was exactly the type of doll that girls wanted to play with. A doll that looked like what they themselves wanted to look like. She believed that the world needed Barbie.

A difficult beginning 

Ruth Handler’s childhood was not easy. She was born Ruth Mosko in Denver, U.S. on Nov. 4, 1916. Less than 10 years earlier, in 1907, her father, Jacob Moskowicz, arrived in America on a transatlantic ship journey from Warsaw. He was fleeing antisemitic Russian overseers and the Russian Army, to which he was going to be drafted. He left his wife, his seven children and a gambling debt in Warsaw.

When he arrived in Denver, Colorado, Jacob Moskowicz changed his name to Jacob Mosko, and made it his mission to bring his family to America. He worked in a forge, built carriages and started producing truck bodies. After two years, his wife and seven children made their journey to the U.S., traveling across the ocean below the deck of a ship, along with masses of other immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Jacob Mosko had a knack for business, but also was pulled towards gambling. Whatever he earned, he lost, and Ruth’s older siblings had to end their studies and go to work in order to support their family financially. It was at this point that Ruth was born, the youngest of 10 children.

Her mother was 40, and her sister Sara was 21. When Ruth was only half a year old, her mother had to go to the hospital for a gallbladder removal surgery. The young Ruth was left under the care of her older sister, who was living outside of the home. When her mother, Ida, left the hospital and got her bearings, she never went back to Sara’s to pick up her youngest daughter. “The weeks turned into months, and Ruth never returned to her family home," author Robin Gerber writes in the book “Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her." She found no proof of Ida and Jacob ever trying to get Ruth back from her sister.

Although she denied for the rest of her life that she felt like a stranger to her family, discarded by her mother, or unloved by her parents, it was clear that this experience marked her for her entire life. During her childhood, she watched her older siblings growing up at home from afar. They attended a different synagogue, a different school, and her sister, who was living with her husband Louie, were more like parents to her than her biological ones. After a few years, it became difficult for her to communicate with her parents, who mostly spoke Yiddish at home.

Ruth’s needs were met at her sister’s, who had greater financial means that her parents did. Sara and her husband owned a pharmacy together, and did not have to provide for as many people as Ida and Jacob did.

Ruth admitted that she felt her whole life that she needed to prove herself

After years, in an interview, Ruth admitted that she felt her whole life that she needed to prove herself, and that she didn’t have to depend on anyone. In her own words, she said that she was “raised with the belief that she had to work for everything herself," and feeling as though she had to pay off some great debt to the world.

And so she worked from an early age. She began by helping her sister at the pharmacy, then in the diner she opened, and later working as a secretary, helping her older brother to start a business. Eventually, she worked at Paramount in Los Angeles, where she went on vacation with a friend during her studies.

Barbie dolls dancing in floral dresses.

Barbie dolls dancing in floral dresses.

Sean Bernstein via Unsplash

A woman's journey in the world of business 

“The idea that not the man, but the woman in the marriage can be in charge of the business was never anything strange to me," explained Handler, who was at this point already world-famous as the CEO of the most famous toy company, remembering her first steps towards business success.

It was the end of the 1930s when Ruth started her first unofficial company. Why unofficial? Because officially, the brains behind the operation was her husband, Elliot. Ruth had met him in Denver, when she was in high school. Elliot came from a Jewish family of modest means, and was an artist. He dreamed of a career as an illustrator, which did not appeal to Sara and Louie, who had still been raising Ruth.

It was for this reason that Sara sent Ruth to study in Los Angeles, hoping that the distance would do its work, and that Ruth would forget about Elliot. It didn’t work. In 1938, Ruth and Elliot were married and bought a house together in L.A..

It was there that Elliot had begun to create his first projects and to create his first industrial and consumer designs. He designed furniture, lamps, ashtrays, bowls, mirrors, bookends, candlesticks, and jewelry. Ruth took it upon herself to sell everything that her husband produced.

This was in the 1940s, at a time when women were typically subordinate to their husbands, spending time in the home and caring for the children. But Ruth confidently marched into stores and distributors' offices, offering her husband's work.

When Ruth had to take pauses from her work due to pregnancy, first with her daughter, Barbara, and later with her son, Ken, she realized that “domestic life” and the obligations of cooking, cleaning, playing with the children, and gossiping over tea with friends were not for her.

It was Harold Matson, who worked with Elliot, who helped her return to what she was best at. At some point, however, Matson, known to both of them as Matt, considered leaving their company to start his own. Ruth and Elliot persuaded him to stay, promising that Ruth would sell whatever Matt designed. He settled on photo frames, given that a photo studio had just opened in Los Angeles.

This was the first project of the Mattel company, whose name came from combining Matt and Elliot’s names. Not too long after, the company started producing toys.

“It never mattered to me if my name was included in our company’s name," Ruth said in an interview. "I knew that this was Elliot’s project, and that Elliot’s name was behind it," she explained. "He was definitely an important part of everything," she said, but acknowledged her own role in the company, adding that, “Mattel was really my baby."

The birth of Barbie 

Ruth had always been different. She was self-assured, loud and didn’t feel limited by the norms and unwritten rules of patriarchy which reigned in 1940s and 50s America. She didn’t want to be a full-time mother. She wanted to work full-time. But she had a feeling of obligation, and believed that a woman could only achieve success in this climate by working much harder, and by being a good mother and wife at the same time. Therefore, she carried out all of the domestic responsibilities, and took on the sales tasks with the growing company at the same time.

This made her happy, but her children felt rejected and alienated by their mother. Her daughter, Barbara, wished that her mother could be like other moms: gentle, calm, warm. She wanted her mother to hug her, to rock her to sleep, but Ruth could not give herself over to her children in that way. She did, however, give her daughter something else: a piece of her business, in the form of a doll.

The idea for a doll modeled on a grown woman came to Ruth in the beginning of the 1950s, when she was watching Barbara and her friends playing with paper dolls, which at that point had been widely available. She observed the girls reproducing scenes and conversations of adult women. Ruth found the dolls unattractive, shaped like babies or characters from fairy tales. You could find them in magazines with cut-outs for children. In every edition, the doll was doing something different: playing piano, walking the dog, cooking. You could also dress the dolls yourself, attaching paper outfits to them.

Ruth watched her daughter playing with these dolls, and dreamed of creating a three-dimensional “adult” doll. She would look the way little girls would like to see themselves when they grow up.

Barbie was not meant to be provocative and espouse sexual connotations

She found the prototype of her doll in 1956, at a shop window in one of the Swiss towns that she visited with her husband during a vacation. This was a doll called “Bild-Lilli”, whose target audience was adult men. She was 30 centimeters tall, had the face of an adult woman, eyebrows in the shape of the letter V, disproportionately long legs and provocative red lips. Lilli was the doll version of a comic strip for adults, which told the story of a woman who ran in the circles of wealthy men.

This did not discourage Ruth. She brought a few of the “Lilli” dolls home from Europe, and said: we will make our dolls for girls in her image. In Ruth’s mind, Barbie was not meant to be provocative and espouse sexual connotations. Quite the contrary. She was meant to be a symbol of the strength and independence of women, and to encourage girls to think about their careers, their self-actualization, and their development. “My philosophy of Barbie was that every girl can become who they want to be ... Barbie always showed that women have a choice," she said.

Ruth Handler with her Barbie dolls.

Ruth Handler, creator of the Barbie doll.

Barbie via Instagram

Barbie on TV 

In order to produce her new doll, Ruth partnered with a production company in Japan who made doll molds. She also worked with American fashion designer Charlotte Buettenback Johnson, who was tasked with creating a tiny, precise wardrobe for the new doll, and makeup artist Buda Westmore, who was meant to transform the sexualized Lilli doll’s appearance into a beautiful, but approachable look for Barbie, who had been named after Ruth’s daughter.

The design and production of the first Barbie doll took three years. During this time, nearly no one in Ruth’s circle believed in the success of the doll, even though Mattel had called her a “teenage model," to distract from the doll's supposed sexuality and her unreal proportions.

Barbie debuted on the American toy market in 1959, and, as expected, Ruth was met with uncertainty and criticism at first. “The male customers thought we were out of our minds," Ruth reflected on the doll’s figure, “because they thought it was a male-dominated area and market." Girls’ mothers were also embarrassed by the Barbie doll’s beautiful blonde appearance.

But this, too, did not stop Ruth. Mattel had already been known worldwide for its toy production, and had known success with television advertisements, notably during children’s programming such as “The Mickey Mouse Club" on the Disney Channel.

Is Barbie a nice girl, liked by everyone? Or is she vain and selfish?

Now, in order to acclimate parents and children to Barbie, Ruth asked psychologist Ernest Dichter for help. Dichter is regarded to this day as the father of motivation studies and the creator of the term “focus group." Ruth wanted him to prepare a plan to advertise Barbie, and to conduct research on how to convince skeptics of Barbie’s appeal.

Dichter interviewed nearly 200 girls and 45 mothers. He asked them all the same questions: “Is Barbie a nice girl, liked by everyone? Or is she vain and selfish? Does she have good taste, or is it too out of the box?”

The research showed that Barbie looked like the girls themselves wanted to look in the future, and that it was not the children, but their mothers, who didn’t like Barbie. Dichter convinced Mattel that the ads they should run should be based on the girls convincing their mothers that, thanks to Barbie and her clothes, they learned to pick their own outfits and to learn class and manners.

The first ads for Barbie appeared on television screens across the country, and Mattel spent tens of thousands of dollars to make them a reality. A few months later, the first mass orders for the doll had begun to arrive. These coincided with the beginning of the girls’ summer holidays, when they had more time to watch television and witness the beautiful — and, for those times, sophisticated — ads for “Barbie: the teenage model."

Barbie dolls.

New Barbie dolls to reflect the diversity in the world kids see today.

Barbie via Instagram

A revolution on the market 

Ever since then, Barbie’s popularity has been immense. In 2003, “Fortune” magazine claimed that every three seconds, somebody around the world was buying a Barbie doll. Today, the number of dolls — which are now sold in around 150 countries around the world — is estimated to be in the billions. Today’s Barbie dolls are responding to the needs and wants of the modern-day world. There are Barbie dolls diverse in skin color and hair texture, astronaut Barbies, presidential Barbies, Barbies with Down Syndrome and transgender Barbies, to name a few. Many of these entered production after Ruth Handler had to say goodbye to Mattel.

The reason? In 1978, Ruth was accused of falsifying Mattel’s financial reports, and hiding the truth about the company’s earnings. Ruth pleaded no contest to these accusations, and never went to prison, but she was fined and instructed to leave the company that she had built up for decades, the company that she had treated as her child.

But even then, she did not break down or give up. Eight years earlier, in 1970, Ruth had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a mastectomy. After recuperating and recovering from the blow to her health, she became involved in a campaign for the early detection of breast cancer, and began to look for a way to create a comfortable breast prosthesis.

I believed that it was important for the self-esteem of young girls

As she had been in the 60s, Ruth became a pioneer for the 70s and 80s — this time for women in the workplace. At a time when women were being discriminated against in the labor market, she hired the largest number of women in leadership positions for Mattel, and voiced feminist opinions that encouraged women to be active participants in the workforce.

When Ruth received her cancer diagnosis, women’s health was not widely discussed, and mastectomies were depicted as something to be ashamed of. It was then when she began to openly speak about the loss of her breasts, and tried to create a prosthetic for herself and for other women, so that they could feel confident in their femininity again.

“When I was creating Barbie, I believed that it was important for the self-esteem of young girls to have a developed looking doll, with breasts," she said in an interview. "Now, I feel that it is even more important to bring a sense of self-worth back to women who had lost them."

Ruth Handler died in 2002, at the age of 85, in Los Angeles. Her breast prosthesis, “Nearly Me," became a success in its own right, with former U.S. First Lady Betty Ford even being personally fitted for one.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


The Problem With Always Blaming Climate Change For Natural Disasters

Climate change is real, but a closer look at the science shows there are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters. It is important to raise awareness about the long-term impact of global warming, but there's a risk in overstating its role in the latest floods or fires.

People on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, scooters and cars navigate through a flooded street during the day time.

Karachi - People wade through flood water after heavy rain in a southern Pakistani city

Xinhua / ZUMA
Axel Bojanowski


BERLIN — In September, thousands of people lost their lives when dams collapsed during flooding in Libya. Engineers had warned that the dams were structurally unsound.

Two years ago, dozens died in floods in western Germany, a region that had experienced a number of similar floods in earlier centuries, where thousands of houses had been built on the natural floodplain.

Last year saw more than 1,000 people lose their lives during monsoon floods in Pakistan. Studies showed that the impact of flooding in the region was exacerbated by the proximity of human settlements, the outdated river management system, high poverty rates and political instability in Pakistan.

There are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters, but one dominates the headlines: climate change. That is because of so-called attribution studies, which are published very quickly after these disasters to highlight how human-caused climate change contributes to extreme weather events. After the flooding in Libya, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described climate change as a “serial offender," while the Tageszeitung wrote that “the climate crisis has exacerbated the extreme rainfall."

The World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has once again achieved its aim of using “real-time analysis” to draw attention to the issue: on its website, the institute says its goal is to “analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events." Frederike Otto, who works on attribution studies for the WWA, says these reports help to underscore the urgent need for climate action. They transform climate change from an “abstract threat into a concrete one."

In the immediate aftermath of a weather-related disaster, teams of researchers rush to put together attribution studies – “so that they are ready within the same news cycle," as the New York Times reported. However, these attribution studies do not meet normal scientific standards, as they are published without going through the peer-review process that would be undertaken before publication in a specialist scientific journal. And that creates problems.

Keep reading...Show less

The latest