From humble beginnings in a California garage to fathering the world’s most iconic doll, Mattel, Inc. has not only revolutionized the children’s toy market but made an indelible mark on our culture at large. With the seat of the vast empire right here in the South Bay, how did a local business manufacture such an enduring legacy? Just ask Barbie.
- Written byMarlene Stang
On any given day, there are certain memories that will catch me happily unawares. Like the golden autumn afternoon that a few kids from my block and I raced Hot Wheels down my driveway for hours on end. Or that string of recesses in the third grade when my friends and I carved out a small corner of our playground to orchestrate make-believe outings for our Barbie dolls.
It was 1983, and my contributions to these play sessions were the Fashion Jeans Barbie and Ken I’d just received for Christmas. They were joined on these group “dates” by “good friends” Western Barbie, Golden Dream Barbie, Magic Curl Barbie and their Kens—fellow 1980s toy icons that inspired us to dream about our futures and hope that they’d be just as glamorous.
Eventually the Barbie dolls in my toy box welcomed my She-Ra: Princess of Power doll, who sparked in me and so many other girls of my generation a desire to be glamorous and mighty. And then there are the memories of those rainy days—so many rainy days—spent holed up in my bedroom with my younger sister and the girls from our neighborhood, crafting entire worlds with other toys and games that, more often than not, were also manufactured by one very historic brand: Mattel, Inc.
Its unmistakable red-and-white logo winked at me from behind nearly every box I unwrapped at Christmas and from the signage at the company’s El Segundo headquarters. My parents would often drive us past that location en route to my grandmother’s house in Manhattan Beach, and each time I imagined that behind its walls sprawled the biggest toy store on earth.
Toys can have an undeniable impact on a child’s life. They can bring a group of kids together on a Saturday afternoon or provide solace in a home racked with turmoil. Child psychologists will even use toys to communicate with children who have experienced trauma. Toys so often serve as a child’s first vehicle for creative self-expression, right along with scrap paper, crayons and markers.
So the impact that Mattel has had on countless children’s lives is profound, since for more than a half-century the company has dominated the world of play. In light of this fact, the company’s humble origins are startling. And Mattel’s trajectory to becoming a cultural tour de force has sparked both praise and controversy.
Entrepreneurs of the world, take note: Mattel began in a Southern California garage back in 1945. Elliot Handler, who had studied industrial design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, used that garage to set up his workshop. There, he made picture frames out of Lucite and flocked wood—and eventually dollhouse furniture from the scraps—for his pre-Mattel company, Elzac.
At the time his wife, Ruth, worked at Paramount Pictures, but from the start the future president of Mattel played a vital role in the evolution of the family business. Legend has it that Ruth landed her husband’s first order, packing a suitcase full of gift items he’d crafted and introducing them to a store on Wilshire Boulevard.
Elliot’s business partner, Harold Matson, sold his portion of the company to Elliot early on, but not before his nickname “Matt” was joined to the “el” in Elliot to form the name “Mattel.” Inspired by the success of the dollhouse furniture, Elliott decided to focus on making toys.
The early years would find the craftsman debuting, among other things, a toy piano and a hand-cranked musical jack-in-the-box, the latter catapulting not only clowns but popular characters like Mickey Mouse into the faces of giggling 1950s children. And it was through The Mickey Mouse Club television show that Mattel began marketing its toys in 1955, serendipitously growing its audience in preparation for the juggernaut that was to come.
That juggernaut, of course, was the Barbie doll. And in the annals of popular culture, her story is now legendary. Ruth Handler observed that her daughter, Barbara, along with her friends, would spend hours playing with paper dolls and dressing them in cut-out fashions. Inspiration soon hit, and Ruth posed the idea to her husband and the design team at Mattel of creating a three-dimensional teenage fashion doll.
In recalling this story many years later, she would state, “When I told my people what I wanted to do, they looked at me like I was asking the impossible.” Dogged in her vision, however, Ruth held on to the idea. And it was on a family trip to Europe that her vision literally assumed shape before her eyes.
While traveling through Switzerland and Austria, she spotted the Bild Lilli doll in several stores—an adult gag gift not unlike the bobbing hula girls that have been popping up on dashboards for decades. Manufactured by German toymakers O&M Hausser, Bild Lilli displayed the sort of adult figure and detailed features that Ruth had in mind. The design team got to work, and after much searching, Mattel located a vinyl manufacturer in Japan that could produce the dolls in a quality, cost-effective manner.
Of course, Ruth knew that in order to market the doll to young girls, “Barbie” (named after her daughter, Barbara) would have to be aspirational. The last piece of the puzzle was finding a designer who could replicate the exciting world of high fashion in miniature, drawing inspiration from the likes of Schiaparelli, Christian Dior and Balenciaga.
Ruth found that designer, Charlotte Johnson, at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles. The school’s graduates include designer Bob Mackie—yet another artist who would dress Barbie in future decades.
Over the years, much has been said about Barbie’s almost otherworldly proportions. Some have even asserted that her impossibly long legs and even more impossible chest/waist/hip ratio are responsible for generations of girls hating their own bodies. But according to April Larsen, a Los Angeles-based designer who restores vintage Barbie dolls and also serves as treasurer of The Pink Pirates (a national Barbie collector’s club), the doll’s proportions are practical.
“Certain clothing pieces designed for Barbie, like some of her skirts, incorporate quite a bit of fabric in the waist,” she says. “If Barbie’s own waist was any thicker, the effect in those skirts would be bulky and awkward—not natural-looking at all. Her body has always been designed to accommodate her clothes.”
Buyers at a New York toy show in February 1959 didn’t get it right away. But as soon as the TV ads hit, Barbie flew off of shelves. And she’s been part of the cultural discourse ever since, setting a precedent in which the products that Mattel markets to girls are far more controversial than the products it has marketed to boys.
Have Hot Wheels, which were launched in 1968, ever been cited as the toy version of a gateway drug to teenage reckless driving? And what about the various muscled action figures that Mattel has produced over the years—have they ever been deemed the culprits in perpetrating modern-day machismo? Perhaps.
But the majority of the dialogue has centered on Barbie and subsequent product lines, like the My Scene dolls (launched in the early 2000s) and the insanely popular Monster High collection of teenage dolls that are now enjoying their moment in the sun (or shade, as it were). Monster High’s cute, goth-inspired pantheon are posited as the progeny of such famous ghouls as Frankenstein and his bride, the Phantom of the Opera and others.
Reaction to these dolls has been mixed. On the far right, you have parents who are horrified (no pun intended) by dolls that are designed to pay homage to the dark side. And on the other end of the spectrum, you find supporters who are thanking Mattel for finally (finally!) creating dolls designed to speak to little girls (and their parents, presumably) whose tastes are off the grid.
Was such a line bound to manifest, what with the Twilight books and films taking the country by storm? Or is there a deeper trend afoot in this post-9/11 world? A growing hope that, perhaps if we embrace the darkness, we can contain it and subdue it?
Arguably, the debates that have swirled around Mattel’s dolls have kept the company on its toes. In order to create products that are relevant, the company’s ever-evolving, ever-expanding marketing and design teams have had to keep their fingers on the pulse of the culture by drawing inspiration from both massive and subtle shifts in the zeitgeist.
No one, we hope, has ever asked the question, “Which came first, the civil rights movement or the black Barbie dolls that Mattel released in 1968?” Of course the civil rights movement came first, but can anyone deny the power that those first black Barbie dolls had to communicate to little girls of color—and their white friends—that yes, indeed, black was beautiful too?
February 17, 1994 marked the date that The Simpsons episode “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” first aired on network television. The plot, in short, centers on Lisa’s realization that her talking Malibu Stacy doll reinforces negative stereotypes about women. Lisa then enlists Smithers, who happens to own the world’s largest collection of Malibu Stacy dolls, in tracking down Stacy’s original creator and convincing her to design a doll that is a better role model for girls.
The episode was inspired by the Teen Talk line of talking Barbie dolls released by Mattel in 1992. The doll uttered such phrases as “Math class is tough!” and drew fire from groups like the American Association of University Women.
At the end of the episode, the company that manufactures Malibu Stacy sabotages the sales of Lisa’s more enlightened “Lisa the Lionheart” doll by pushing a cartful of Malibu Stacy dolls (now wearing new hats, no less) in front of a group of girls who have come to the mall to buy Lisa’s doll. Of course, the real-life story behind the episode had already reached a measure of resolution two years prior when Mattel announced that future runs of Teen Talk Barbie would not be programmed to say the controversial phrase.
Controversy swirled around Mattel again in 2004 when the company filed a lawsuit against MGA Entertainment claiming that Bratz, MGA’s line of large-headed, pouty-lipped teen fashion dolls, were in fact designed by a former Mattel designer while he was still employed by Mattel. MGA filed a countersuit in 2005, claiming that Mattel’s line of My Scene dolls, which also featured certain stylistic similarities to the Bratz dolls, copied their design. In April 2011 a jury sided with MGA, and Mattel was forced to pay MGA a total of $309 million in damages and legal fees.
Over the years, Mattel has recognized the importance of not only appealing to children but adults as well. Some of Barbie’s most avid fans are not children but grown men and women who have amassed personal collections valued in the triple digits and who trek, year after year, to conventions held around the world. Every year, the National Barbie Doll Collector’s Convention is held in a different U.S. city, with Mattel donating items for the centerpieces and a special gift for each attendee.
Mattel also recognizes its adult constituency in the development of new product lines, such as its high-end Barbie collections commemorating films, empires and fantastical beings such as ghosts and fairies—as well as many toys and games designed to cultivate parent/child engagement. Visit Mattel’s official website, and you’ll find online games that families can play together, as well as tips for parents ranging from “How to Throw a Barbie Birthday Bash” to how to ensure safe internet use in the home.
Click on the “Our Sites” tab at the top of that page and you will access links to all 19 of those sites, which over the years have come to include American Girl, Fisher-Price and even Hot Wheels’ early competition Matchbox. It’s not surprising that at press time, Forbes reports that Mattel’s annual revenues have reached $6.42 billion.
Mattel has 28,000 employees worldwide and takes corporate responsibility seriously. The company has been recognized as one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies,” while Fortune Magazine has named it one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” In 2012 Mattel PLAYers incorporated more than 13,000 global employees annually in a variety of activities that totaled 121,000 volunteer hours.
Also in 2012 Mattel granted a total of $10 million in funds to a wide array of non-profit organizations worldwide, as well as directly to the Mattel Children’s Foundation. Mattel’s focus is organizations that directly support children in need, including its signature partner Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, which served more than 100,000 children last year. Mattel’s other signature partners include Special Olympics, Save the Children and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Mattel employees can also give back to their communities through the foundation’s matching gifts program. In turn, the foundation gives back to its employees through its Global Scholarships program, which assists children of employees with college and university education costs.
And during the holidays, Mattel employees also actively participate in the Mattel 12 Days of Play® program in more than 30 locations globally. Through this program, employees have the opportunity to coordinate play events at school playgrounds, wrap toys that are then given to underprivileged children, and coordinate play-oriented holiday parties at hospitals and in other charitable organizations that are focused on kids.
Happily, the Handlers lived long enough to see the magic of their empire take flight. After beating breast cancer in the 1970s and designing a more realistic prostheses for mastectomy patients, Ruth lived for nearly 30 more years, continuing to play an active role in the creative evolution of the company. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 85.
Elliot survived his wife by nine years, passing away at the age of 95 and living to attend the dedication of a bronze bas-relief plague depicting him and Ruth smiling over a worktable strewn with Barbie and Hot Wheels parts. The bronze is now displayed in the lobby of Mattel’s headquarters.
Daughter, Barbara, survives her parents and her brother, Ken, who died of a brain tumor in 1994. In June 2012, she attended the renaming and dedication of Mattel’s El Segundo design center as the Handler Team Center. The renaming was only fitting, given that the spirit of teamwork shared by its founders fuels Mattel to this day.