First Barbie

The history of the Barbie doll

The Barbie Doll has quite a reputation. Some mothers love them, some mothers hate them. Once you understand the history of the Barbie doll, it all makes sense.  Barbie has a past that isn’t appropriate for the makings of a little girl’s doll. But that information isn’t common knowledge.


I remember standing in the aisle of Dorsey’s Toy Store in my neighborhood town of Montrose, eagerly eyeing the much-talked about doll in the black and white striped swimsuit. There were two dolls to choose from — Blonde Barbie and Brunette Barbie. There was a lot of excitement about this doll that didn’t look  like my other dolls.

Barbie made her debut in 1959 in New York, as the teenage fashion model doll. I was five years old at the time. I don’t remember how old I was when I got my first Barbie, but I was young. I had dolls that were “little girls” — my mom preferred the “Betsy McCall” doll that looked like a child. She must have given-in and let me get the Barbie. I also had a “Tammy” doll and a “Shirley Temple” doll. But they didn’t create the excitement of “Barbie.”

Barbie’s past as Lilli — the cartoon

But Barbie had a past. Barbie began as Lilli. Or, Lilli inspired Barbie. How ever you look at it, American Barbie has a secret past in Germany as the Bild-Lilli Doll .

First Lilli was a comic, a pin-up girl, drawn by cartoonist, Reinhard Beuthien for the newspaper tabloid, Bild-Zeitung in Hamburg Germany. (a paper of mostly pictures, ‘bild’ in German means picture.) In 1952, Reinhard Beuthian was commissioned to create a cartoon for the newspaper.

First he drew a baby, which was rejected; then he drew the bombshell babe, Lilli. She appeared in the paper on June 24, 1952 and was a big hit until her run ended on Jan 5, 1961.  Lilli was a Sunday regular in the Hamburg paper — just filling up some extra space.  In 1953, the newspaper decided to market the femme-fatale cartoon as a doll.

Bild Lilli -- Barbie's past

Lilli the cartoon became Lilli the doll

Lilli on paper became Lilli the doll, in sizes 7-1/2 inches and 12 inches, available in smoke shops and targeted for the male buyer, as kind of a gag gift. It was 1955, and no one knew that this sexy pin-up doll would ever find a place into a young girl’s heart. Three years after the first cartoon drawing,MaxWeißbrodt, working for the O &MHausser Toy Company in Germany,  sculpted the Lilli doll model.

Lilli Barbie

The Lilli doll

The Lilli doll had three new patents:

  • the head wasn’t connected to the neck
  • the hair was part of a cutout scalp attached with a screw
  • the legs didn’t sprawl open

Yep, that’s right Miss Lilli kept her legs together, so there’s some modesty for you.

If you’ve ever had a Barbie doll, you know about those legs, they only do the splits — one leg forward, one leg backward — and it’s difficult to pull them apart to get Barbie’s pants on. My daughter used to get so infuriated with the whole process, that she angrily bit Barbie’s toes in frustration. Her Barbies have permanent damage.

Lilli was made of rigid plastic, jointed arms and legs, molded eyelashes, earrings and “high-heel” feet. Her painted eyes were glancing to the side (she didn’t look you straight in the face), high arched eyebrows, red painted pouty lips and red fingernails. Her shoes were painted on as well. She wore her blonde pony tail high up on her head with one curl slipping over her forehead.

Lilli becomes America’s Barbie

Ruth Handler and her husband, Elliot had a business making wooden picture frames in the 1940’s. But the wooden scrapes became more profitable — Elliot began to use them to make toys. Then, in 1945, with close friend, Harold Mattson they formed a toy company — Mattel —  Matt (for Mattson) and El (for Elliot).

Ruth bought the Lilli doll while traveling to Germany in 1956, returned home to the U.S. and with Mattel, fashioned the new doll — named “Barbie,” after her daughter, Barbara. She had a son too — Ken. In 1959, the Barbie Doll debuted in New York City as the hot teen fashion doll. She had the same eyes, glancing sideways, but painted toenails and removable shoes.

1st Barbies:

First Barbie doll
first Barbie doll

My firstbarbie was the blonde one in the box.