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Barbie never went to Harvard (that we know of), but the papers of Ruth Handler, her creator, did

16 fun, surprising, and slightly bonkers facts we learned about the Barbie inventor and Mattel cofounder at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library

Barbie doll creator Ruth Handler, left, gets a kiss from Kristi Cooke, an actress dressed as a Barbie doll, during the 35th birthday celebration for the doll at FAO Schwarz in New York City on March 9, 1994.ROBERT CLARK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAMBRIDGE — Since 1959, Barbie has had more than 200 careers, including astronaut, scuba diver, and paleontologist. Mattel even introduced a presidential candidate Barbie in 1992.

But long before Barbie was boss, her creator, Ruth Handler, was a successful businesswoman. And while Barbie never went to Harvard (“I’m not aware of any connection between Barbie and Harvard,” said Jenny Gotwals, gender and society curator at the university’s Schlesinger Library), Handler’s personal papers did after she died at 85 in 2002.

The Papers of Ruth Handler, 1931-2002 — 35 file boxes, plus photographs, videotapes, and audiotapes — are housed at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Her husband, Elliot Handler, donated the collection, which is filled with handwritten letters, article clippings, drawings, planners, medical records, legal documents, fan mail, and lots and lots of pink.

Even with all the Barbie hype leading up to the movie’s July 21 release, Handler’s collection “is not the most popular,” according to Gotwals. She said that of the library’s 4,400 collections dedicated to illuminating the lives of women in America, the papers of Angela Davis, Pauli Murray, and June Jordan typically get the most use.


“We spend a lot of time trying to find collections that document women creating businesses, and they’re really interesting, but they just don’t get as much research use right now as our other collections,” Gotwals said.

Gotwals noted that there are no actual Barbie dolls in the collection, as the library doesn’t collect “three-dimensionals.” But there’s plenty more to discover: For instance, Handler’s favorite subject in school was English, she drove a pink Thunderbird, and she and her husband had $14 in their joint bank account before inventing the now-legendary doll.


For Barbie fanatics, or newcomers who are just trying to keep up, here’s a list of 16 things the Globe learned about Handler (and Barbie) from her personal papers and some online digging.

Ruth Handler, who created the Barbie doll, and her husband and Mattel cofounder, Elliot Handler. ELLIOT HANDLER/SCHLESINGER LIBRARY

1. Growing up, Handler didn’t like dolls.

“I just wasn’t interested,” she told California Business Journal in the 1970s. “I was a tomboy — played ball, rode a bicycle around town, did things like that.”

2. The real Barbie and Ken were siblings.

Though they’re a couple in Barbie world, the dolls were named after the Handlers’ kids, Barbara and Kenneth. “My children did not look like the dolls,” Ruth Handler once wrote to a fan, “although Barbara has always been beautifully built, and the doll wore many hairstyles like hers.”

3. Barbie was based on the German “Bild Lilli” doll.

In 1956, three years before she invented Barbie, Handler went on vacation in Lucerne, Switzerland with her children. While there she saw the Bild Lilli doll in a toy store window and bought two for her daughter and one for herself. “She was made out of a cheap plastic and her hair was a glued-on wig, but she showed that an adult doll of the type I wanted could be made,” Handler said in a speech at Barbie’s 35th anniversary party.

Drawings from Elliot Handler's sketchbook in the Papers of Ruth Handler collection at Harvard's Schlesinger Library show early musings on Barbie. Nicole Kagan/Globe Staff

4. Handler was left out in the naming of the Mattel toy company.

In 1945 Handler, her husband, Elliot, and their friend Harold Matson founded Mattel Creations, in an LA garage. The company name is a combination of Matson and Elliot. Ruth Handler later became president of Mattel.


5. Handler was labeled a “living doll” by the media.

According to the Chicago Daily News, she was “petite, chic, and wealthy.” Also like Barbie, Handler drove a pink convertible and always seemed to be “slightly off the ground whether walking or standing,” observed the Los Angeles Times in 1967, under the headline “Ken, Barbie’s mom is a ‘living doll.’”

6. Handler was the youngest of 10 children.

In 1916, she was born into a poor, Russian Jewish immigrant family in Denver. “When you come from poverty,” she told the Chicago Daily News in 1968, “you are much more apt to develop the intensive drive you need for success.”

The invitation to Ruth and Elliot Handler's 58th wedding anniversary in Los Angeles from the Papers of Ruth Handler collection at Harvard's Schlesinger Library. Nicole Kagan/Globe Staff

7. The Handlers got engaged via postcard.

In 1938, Ruth’s then-boyfriend, Elliot, wrote her a postcard saying, “I wish we could get married. Then you could be in L.A. with me.” She responded, “Okay, let’s get married.” A few months later, they wed in Denver. “I don’t think we had but a few dollars between us,” Handler wrote in her journal.

8. When Barbara was born in 1941, the Handlers had $14 in their bank account.

At the time, Ruth was working as a stenographer at Paramount Studios, and Elliot was designing light fixtures. Financial records show that one day prior to Barbara’s birth, they had $14 in their joint account, the equivalent of about $290 today.

9. Handler did not know how to cook.


She “just threw things together,” she said to a prospective biographer during a 1987 interview. One of her “best dishes” was French toast covered with cream of mushroom soup, she said. Handler also tried “once or twice to bake, but it was a disaster.”

Caricatures of Elliot and Ruth Handler obtained during a visit to the Folies Bergère in Paris, from the Papers of Ruth Handler collection at Harvard's Schlesinger Library. Nicole Kagan/Globe Staff

10. Barbie was far from the first toy Mattel Creations produced.

The company started by making wooden picture frames and then dollhouse furniture with the leftover wood. The first successful toy Mattel Creations produced was the “Uke-A-Doodle,” a playable mini ukulele.

11. Some Barbie dolls wore lingerie.

Mattel designers created a pink-satin lingerie set for a 1993 Barbie complete with a pink satin negligee with sparkling lace trim, matching high-cut underwear, a bra with a real fastener, and high-heeled slippers.

Drawings from Elliot Handler's sketchbook show early musings on Barbie, from the Papers of Ruth Handler collection at Harvard's Schlesinger Library. Nicole Kagan/Globe Staff

12. Ken was supposed to have an “appendage.”

It was important to Handler that her dolls be anatomically correct. “I wanted to put a penis on Ken,” she said in an interview with New West magazine. “But the men in the company wouldn’t let me.” According to Handler, the all-male board also worried about making a doll with breasts.

13. Handler did not keep any original Barbie dolls.

In a letter to a class of fourth-graders in 1993, she wrote that she didn’t keep any of the 1959 dolls because she “did not expect them to be so valuable in future years.” Today, original Barbies can sell for as much as $15,000.

Drawings from Elliot Handler's sketchbook in the Papers of Ruth Handler collection at Harvard's Schlesinger Library.Nicole Kagan/Globe Staff

14. Handler avoided spending 41 years in prison.


In 1978, a grand jury indicted her on charges of fraud and false reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The indictment accused Handler and Mattel’s former executive vice president of falsifying internal business records concerning earnings and sales in the early 1970s to influence Mattel stock’s market price, among other allegations. Though Handler publicly maintained her innocence, she pleaded no contest. She could have faced up to 41 years in prison, but was eventually sentenced to 2,500 hours of community service and fined $57,000.

15. After her mastectomy in 1970, Handler created a prosthetic breast company.

When the inventor of the first doll with breasts lost her own to breast cancer, she wrote in a letter that the experience of trying to get prosthetics after her double mastectomy was “humiliating . . . very unsatisfactory and disastrous.” So she started her own custom prosthetics company, “Nearly Me,” to “revolutionize” the industry.

16. Handler believed in a long future for Barbie.

In a 1993 letter to a friend, she wrote, “I predict that Barbie will grow and change with the times as she always has and that she will continue to be every little girl’s best friend and confidante.”

Ruth Handler, Mattel Inc. cofounder and inventor of the Barbie doll, displays the special 40th Anniversary Barbie at a press conference in New York City. MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images

Nicole Kagan can be reached at Follow her @nicolekagan_.