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American entrepreneur, b. Ruth Mosko in Denver 1916-11-04, d. Los Angeles 2002-04-27. High priestess of the American Dream.

The last of ten children born to a Polish immigrant family, Ruth was practically raised by her older sister because of her mother's illness. Like so many girls her age in those days, at age nineteen she moved to Los Angeles and got a job as a stenographer at Paramount Pictures while studying industrial design. She became Mrs. Elliot Handler in 1938 and her husband took up a career as an artist, first working on lighting and furniture and then specialising in gifts and knick-knacks made of various materials which he created with another designer, Harold Matson. Ruth took charge of selling her husband's work, made it a commercial success, and a partnership that would leave its mark on American culture into the next century.

"My bright young wife stated if I could make this furniture for the house, why not make some for sale?" --Elliot Handler

And so it was. In 1944 The couple and Matson founded Mattel. The company soon turned from its initial business of picture frames and other decorative items to manufacturing toy furniture and eventually came up with the Uke-A-Doodle and a music box that would put the company on the map. In line with the times and half a step ahead of everyone else, Mattel started running year-round advertisements on childrens television and capped its deal with the Mickey Mouse Club by selling a Mouseguitar toy. Western-themed toys followed along with the success of television series such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke but it was not until 1956 that Ruth Handler would come up with one of the greatest marketing ideas in corporate American history.

Her daughter was shunning the traditional "human baby" dolls in favour of paper cut-outs of fashion models. Handler thought she would create a three-dimensional adult doll that would reflect this preference--a doll that turned out to be a bodacious blue-eyed blonde from fictional Willows, Wisconsin with the science-fictional measurements of 39-18-33, clad in no more than a black and white striped swimsuit. The doll was based on a German doll called Lilli from a saucy newspaper comic strip that Handler bought during a visit to Lucerne in 1956. It took her a couple of years to convince her partners to manufacture it.

In Barbie Millicent Roberts, Handler had created a legend. She had created an instant culture icon. She had created a monster. It depends on whom you ask. Barbie, named after her daughter Barbara, was patented in 1958 and first presented at a toy fair in 1959 where buyers and parents weren't sure what to make of it but little girls loved it. By 1960 a million dollars' worth of Barbie dolls had been sold, never mind the accessories and clothes that were bound to follow. Ruth Handler had single-handedly created an eleven and a half inch high icon of American culture. Mattel was big business and by 1965 figured in the Fortune 500. Within ten years of her launch, Barbie had sold half a billion dollars worth of merchandise, including her brother Ken, also named after a Handler kid. Handler never held any patents in her name because she only created the design and left the actual creation of the doll in the hands of Mattel technicians.

While business had been good so far, life wasn't equally kind to Ruth Handler's health. In 1970 she underwent a mastectomy. At the same time, Mattel began losing money and by 1975 she and her husband were forced out of the company. Barbie stayed, the company turned around, but Ruth Handler was convicted of defrauding her investors. She had been the company's vice-president from 1948 to 1967 and its president for the six years after that. She was a director of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, sat on a presidential advisory committee and was a guest professor at several prominent educational institutes.

Following her cancer surgery, she was left with the obvious aesthetic and confidence issues that every woman who's been there faces. She went on a search for breast prosthetics and was shown what was basically a bag stuffed with something. Even in the upscale market there were just placeholders and nothing that looked natural or felt comfortable. They didn't even distinguish between left and right. Then she found legendary prosthetics designer Peyton Massey. He custom-made her prosthesis. With her keen sense for knowing the Real Thing, she teamed up with him, brought in a few former Mattel engineers and created Nearly Me, the first breast prosthesis that was worth a dime.

Nearly Me was the next chapter of her life. Handler capitalised on her own experiences and developed an entire product line designed for women who have had mastectomies. The company is still in the business. Handler died aged 85 of complications following colon cancer surgery.

While it's often argued that Handler made a deal with the devil on behalf of womanhood like some modern-day Faust and invented an oppressive stereotype, I'm not quite sure that's the case. All she did was shift the gender stereotype but she was hardly doing so alone--it reflected a trend that the youngsters of the 1950s had picked up and the media were already pushing. She was indeed "projecting every little girl's dream of the future," regardless where that dream came from. Frankly, I'd give her a lot more credit for her business acumen, her work in prosthetics and her invasion of the male-dominated boardroom. This woman was a lot more than just Barbie's mom. Probably a good thing since her real daughter still thinks of Barbie as "a bimbo."

Associated Press

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