Ruth Handler was an American entrepreneur who revolutionized the toy industry by inventing the Barbie doll. She was also the co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company and owner of a prosthetic breast business.
Handler was born on 4th November 1916 in Denver, Colorado to a Polish immigrant family. At the age of 16 she met her life partner Isadore Elliot Handler whom she married three years later. Handler attended the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles. Her first job was at the Paramount Studios as a secretary while her husband started designing of household products. Soon they started a company called ‘Elzac’ which sold gift items and costume jewelry. ‘Elzac’ was quite successful but this was not enough for the Handlers. They expanded the company to include products such as picture frames and doll house furniture. By 1945 they were profiting immensely from their new toy business ‘Mattel’. During the 50s advertisement of toys on television which was a rare commodity at the time, was not common. Ruth Handler who was a marketing genius changed that by sponsoring a TV show called ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ which drastically increased sales at Mattel.
Handler was very inspired by all this so she came up with the idea of the Barbie doll which was the first adult looking doll ever made. The name ‘Barbie’ was taken from her daughter ‘Barbara’s’ name. The first Barbie was 11 and a half inches blonde with a complete figure and she wore fashionable clothes and high heels. In its first year 351,000 Barbie dolls were sold which was a record for Mattel. The demand for this new toy was so high that they had to struggle to meet it. This success soon led to the creation of Barbie’s boyfriend ‘Ken’ who was named after the Handler’s own son. Soon other family members and friends of Barbie were added along with many accessories and clothes. By 2002 there were more than billion Barbie dolls sold all over the world. Young girls were enthralled with them and so were the fan clubs, collectors and magazines.
Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 and had a mastectomy. This left her emotionally scarred as she lost her confidence and spent less time at work. After she faced tremendous difficulty finding a prosthetic breast she decided to manufacture a more realistic version of a breast using foam and silicon. She called it ‘Nearly Me’. She said that making money was not her goal for this business. She just did it to help thousands of women looking for something like this to help build back their self-esteem.
Handler has been credited many times for her achievements in philanthropy and business. She was named the Women of the Year in Business in Los Angeles Times and was included in the Toy Industry Hall of Fame by Toy Manufacturers of America. She also received the ‘Volunteer Achievement Award’ by the America Cancer Society. She was the first ever ‘Woman of Distinction’ of the United Jewish Appeal.
Ruth Handler died due to complications of a colon cancer surgery in April 2002.