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Book Excerpt: Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her

The story of Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie.

As she stood in the Barbie showroom at Toy Fair, Ruth Handler exuded her characteristic confidence. “One of my strengths is that I do have the courage of my convictions and the guts to take a position,” Ruth told an interviewer. “I can be very persuasive in getting others to see the light.” But her bravado began to seep away as one buyer after another made a cursory tour of the room and took off, leaving few if any orders. “For the most part, the doll was hated,” a Mattel sales rep remembered. “The male buyers thought we were out of our minds because of the breasts, and it was a male-dominated business.” By the time Lou Kieso, the buyer from Sears, walked into the smoky room, Ruth had no idea what to expect. 

Ruth gave Kieso her most dazzling smile, shaking his hand and looking him straight in the eye. Showing him around, Ruth emphasized the professional market research Mattel had done for the doll and the television advertising that was planned. Kieso was unimpressed. He refused to take a sample of the doll back to the Sears headquarters in Chicago. He left without placing a single order, as did half the buyers that came through the Barbie display.

Ruth realized that her production projections were a disaster. Twenty thousand dolls a week had been ordered for delivery over the next six months, which seemed reasonable because of the distance of the Japanese plants. She also had planned on selling three or four costumes per doll. Ruth wanted to avoid inventory delays, but now she faced warehouses full of unsold inventory. Panicked, she wired Japan to cut production by 40 percent.

That night, in her room at the New Yorker, Ruth broke down in tears. “She was very upset,” her husband Elliot remembered. “I didn’t think it would be successful, but she did. This was her dream. She put so much effort into pushing it. She did not cry often, but she cried because she had that heart,” he said, pointing to his own. “The doll was like a piece of art for her that held a piece of her heart.”

Only Elliot could have understood how much of herself Ruth had poured into the Barbie doll. While he may not have believed in Barbie as a marketable toy, he understood why Ruth did. Over and over, with fierce confidence, Ruth had told those who doubted her idea that little girls just wanted to be bigger girls. She was sure, impassioned, and unshakable because she was not talking about just any little girls. Ruth was talking about one, the girl who, before she married Elliot, had been known as Ruthie Mosko. 

From the book Barbie and Ruth by Robin Gerber. © 2009 Robin Gerber. Published by Collins Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.