Barbie’s Eastern European Jewish Roots

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Ruth (Mosko) Handler poses in patriotic WWI nurses garb with her mother, Ida, and her three other Denver born siblings Aaron, Maurice, and Joseph (left to right). Circa 1917.

Though introduced in 1959, Barbie’s story begins much earlier in turn-of-the-20th century Poland.  Life in Eastern Europe had become increasingly challenging for people of Jewish faith because of religious persecution and the economic restrictions.  It was in 1905 that Jacob Mosko decided to come to America in search of a better life.  By then, Denver had a sizable Jewish population, and Mosko settled into the community working as a blacksmith. He had left behind his wife, Ida, and their six children in Poland, but within a few years he was successful enough to pay for their passage to America. Once reunited, the family grew by four more children.  The youngest Mosko child, Ruth Marianna, was born on November 4, 1916 in Denver, Colorado.

Ruth grew up in Denver and married her high school sweetheart Elliot Handler.  The two were drawn in by the allure of 1930s Hollywood and moved to California. They had two children, Barbara and Kenneth, and ran their own plastics business. In 1945, they embarked on a new business endeavor with a family friend, Harold “Matt” Matson, founding Mattel Creations. The name Mattel stemmed from the founders names, Matt and Elliot. Though Ruth may not have received mention in the company name, it was really Ruth that put Mattel on the map with the Barbie doll.

Ruth’s daughter, Barbara, didn’t care much for baby dolls so Ruth looked for a more grown up doll Barbara could play with. While on a European vacation in 1956, Ruth saw something that caught her eye. The German Lilli doll was similar to what Ruth envisioned so she bought a few to bring home with her.  Though, Lilli was a bit scandalous since the doll was meant as a cigar store gag-gift for men modeled after a comic strip with a voluptuous and sexually uninhibited leading lady.  Ruth made changes to the design and soon created what would be the highest grossing toy of all time.

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The first Barbie doll, designed to look like a Hollywood starlet, was available in both blonde and brunette.

On March 9, 1959, the Barbie doll, named for Ruth’s daughter, was first introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. Barbie’s quick success led to the release of the Ken doll in 1961, named, of course, for Barbara’s son.

So, while the first thing that pops into your mind when you picture Barbie likely isn’t turn-of-the-century Jewish Polish immigrants, it is none the less where her roots lie.  Barbie is an indirect product of the American Dream.

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