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Ruth Handler
1916 - 2002

For those who did not know, Ruth Handler's vibrant smile and energetic air never revealed that she was 85 years old. Thus it was with shock and dismay that we learned of her recent passing.

Ruth, better known to much of the world as "Barbie®'s Mom", was an enterprising and inspirational woman. With
her husband, Elliot, and business partner Harold Matson, she founded Mattel Inc. in 1945 manufacturing, among other things, doll furniture and children's musical instruments. Ruth was a high ranking executive of the company at a time when it was unusual to have women in business at all. Her drive and forthrightness gave birth to Mattel's most famous production - the Barbie® doll.

It has become legend, how Ruth watched her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls and emulating adult roles. Ruth decided that girls needed a doll that they could project their ideas and ambitions on to, and not simply look after, like many of the baby dolls of the day. Her idea gained ground when in the mid 1950's the family took a trip to Germany and Ruth spotted a "Bild Lilli" doll in a store window. Purchasing a couple of the dolls, she took them back to America and persevered with creating her ideal of the teenage role model. Despite skepticism from males within the company, problems with manufacture and harsh reviews from critics, Barbie® hit the stores in 1959 and has been selling steadily ever since. She has fulfilled Ruth's dream of being an inspiration to young girls (and boys) around the world – Barbie®'s career has included roles as astronaut, nurse, stewardess, doctor, ballerina, firefighter, teacher, policewoman, pilot, and political figure to name but a few. She is multi-national and exhibits ethnic diversity. In over 150 countries Barbie® is a cultural icon.


Born Ruth Mosko on November 4th 1916, in Denver, Colorado, Ruth grew up in a large family of Polish descent. She met Elliot Handler in 1932 and they married in 1938 in California. They had two children, Barbara and Ken (who died in 1994 from a brain tumour) and by the time Mattel was in full swing in the sixties, grandchildren also were on the scene. Ruth immortalised her family by naming her doll creations after them.

In the early 1970's, tragedy struck when Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy, but the ordeal left scars on the company as well, leading to charges of mismanagement and fraud. Elliot and Ruth left the company in 1975.

Yet Ruth was not about to be stopped by anything, not forced retirement nor deadly diseases. Shocked at the level of ignorance and unsatisfactory state of women's breast prostheses, she again galvanised into action and established "Nearly Me". This company not only produced prosthetic breasts that were natural and realistic, but also directed efforts toward education about detection and prevention of breast cancer. Ruth Handler became one of the first advocates willing to speak about these issues. The company flourished and was eventually sold to a division of Kimberly - Clark in 1991. Ruth frequently joked that her career was steeped in breasts (referring to Barbie®'s controversial measurements).

Since the mid 1990's, Ruth often attended Barbie® shows and conventions across the United States, signing dolls for her legion of fans. She was also a guest on many talk shows, discussing her life and the impact she and Barbie® have had on the 20th century. In 1995 she published her autobiography "Dream Doll", giving us all insight into the life of this motivated and visionary woman.

Ruth Handler died from complications relating to previous colon surgery, on Saturday April 27th 2002. She will be dearly missed by many.

© Karen Valentine for the ABC Doll Club, 2002. To learn more about Ruth Handler and Mattel, see "Dream Doll - the Ruth Handler story" by Ruth Handler and Jaqueline Shannon, and "The Story of Barbie®" by Kitturah B. Westenhouser.

 

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