Ruth Handler (1916 – 2002)

A visionary who painted a world of pink and possibilities

In the tapestry of American business and innovation, there are threads that weave through the fabric of society, creating patterns that redefine generations. One of the most vibrant and enduring threads is Ruth Handler, the visionary creator of the Barbie doll and a co-founder of Mattel Inc., a company that has brought joy and imagination to millions worldwide.

Born in 1916 in Denver, Colorado, Ruth’s journey was nothing short of extraordinary. From humble beginnings, she navigated a path filled with ingenuity, determination, and a keen eye for understanding the unspoken desires of children and parents alike. Ruth was not just a businesswoman; she was a cultural architect, molding and shaping the playtime of generations.

After marrying her high school sweetheart, Elliott Handler, in 1938, the couple moved to Las Angeles where they began manufacturing furniture with two new types of plastics, Lucite and Plexiglas. During the war as furniture sales fell the duo pivoted to manufacture miniature toy furniture.  In 1945 the pair founded toy company Mattel with a businessman friend, Harold Matson, the name coming from Matson’s and Elliot’s name.

In the post-war era, as America was basking in prosperity and innovation, Ruth noticed a gap in the market. She observed her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls, which were predominant at the time, and crafting adult lives for them. It was a eureka moment. Why not create a three-dimensional doll that embodied the aspirations, dreams, and adventures of the modern girl?

She brought the idea to Elliott and the Mattel board and neither was impressed.  Ruth tabled the idea and traveled to Europe where she found the incarnation of her idea in a German adult shaped doll called Bild Lilli.  She bought three and flew home, giving one to her daughter Barbara and the two others to the Mattel board, giving the board a real life image of the doll she wanted to create. 

After two years of design, Barbie (named after her daughter) was introduced to the world in 1959.  And the world loved her, with Mattel selling 350,000 dolls in the first year. 

But Barbie was more than just a doll. She was a canvas upon which millions of little girls could paint their dreams and aspirations. Ruth didn’t just sell a product; she sold possibilities. Barbie was a doctor, an astronaut, a teacher, a fashion icon – she was whatever a little girl dreamed her to be. Ruth’s creation broke the mold, shattering the limitations of traditional dolls and creating a legacy that transcended toys.

Her vision was not without its challenges, however. Critics were skeptical, and the journey was laden with hurdles. But Ruth, much like the Barbie she created, was unstoppable. With unwavering determination, she navigated through the criticism, transforming skeptics into believers and challenges into opportunities.

But Ruth’s impact extends beyond the shelves of toy stores. She was a pioneer in business at a time when the corporate world was predominantly a man’s domain. Her acumen, tenacity, and ability to perceive the unseen needs of a market made her a force to be reckoned with. She shattered glass ceilings, creating a space for women in boardrooms and proving that the acumen to excel in business was not the prerogative of one gender.

Ruth Handler didn’t just built a company; she cultivated a culture of imagination, empowerment, and limitless potential.  In her legacy we see more than the billions of Barbie dolls that have found homes across the globe and a company that manufactured toys for kids around the world. We see a legacy of tenaciousness, entrepreneurship, and an indomitable spirit.

Ruth Handler was more than a businesswoman; she was a visionary who painted the world in shades of pink and possibilities and in doing so, inspired generations of girls to dream bigger, reach higher, and break barriers.

Ruth Handler died in 2002 and in her story we find the essence of the American dream – the belief that with passion, perseverance, and a sprinkle of imagination, anything is possible.