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The Significance of Toys: Barbie and Postwar American Culture

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Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 23rd October, 2023 21 min read

The Significance of Toys: Barbie and Postwar American Culture

Material culture is an intriguing topic of investigation for historians. Objects play an important role in our lives: we use them daily to complete almost every single task.1 The diverse ways in which individuals use objects are intriguing in their own right, but their importance to historians extends well beyond their practical functions.Historian Jules Prown defines material culture as "the manifestations of culture through material productions", highlighting its crucial role in unveiling a society's values and attitudes.In particular, looking at specific child-centred objects, such as toys, offers insights into social and cultural history throughout the twentieth century.

The twentieth century, often dubbed the “golden age of toy development”, brings to mind iconic creations such as the Barbie doll. With the recent release of the Barbie movie and its sheer popularity, now is perhaps the perfect time to delve into the enduring appeal and significance of the 11-and-a-half-inch doll. The legendary teenage fashion doll, created in 1959 by American toy company Mattel, has been described as the “toy phenomena of the second half of the twentieth century”.Over six decades more than one billion Barbie dolls have been sold. The brand has expanded into a multimedia franchise, producing dolls, video games, animated films, live-action films, and TV shows. 

Barbie is widely recognised as “the most potent icon of American popular culture”.5 This article explores Barbie’s impact upon twentieth century American society — an impact that extends far beyond her status as a popular toy. Viewing Barbie as a historical artefact can illuminate shifts in toy manufacturing practices, as well as changes in traditional modes of femininity. The Barbie phenomenon is likewise linked, arguably, to the emergence of childhood self-esteem issues. Indeed, the success of Barbie is indicative of the ascent of materialism throughout the mid-twentieth century.

Twentieth Century Childhood: The Birth of The Barbie Doll Before delving into Barbie's significance, it is essential to understand the context that gave rise to her creation. The twentieth century was marked by substantial changes, including two world wars, evolving notions of masculinity and femininity, and numerous cultural, economic, and political shifts. The historian Philippe Aries has noted how a redefinition of childhood also occurred. As Aries has demonstrated, within medieval society children were seen as small adults — there was no distinct concept of childhood.6 Furthermore, the sociologist Steven Dubin has highlighted how the era following the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War was characterised by optimism, economic growth, and a shift towards the nuclear family model, a model in which the child's needs were prioritised.7 Thus, children began to be viewed more as people, as “opposed to extensions of their household”.8

Fuelled by the growth of a consumer-driven society, this era also witnessed changes in how children interacted, learned, and played. The mid-twentieth century saw unprecedented evolution in the toy industry. Toys, as Stephen Kline has pointed out, mimic “the adult world in size and form”, thereby offering children a tangible reflection of scientific progress, technological advancements, and social norms.9 Toys therefore serve as a cultural gateway for children. 

Barbie was created by American businesswoman Ruth Handler. The doll was subsequently manufactured by Mattel.10 Inspired by her daughter's imaginative play, Ruth sought to provide an alternative to traditional baby dolls. Most dolls around at that time were old-fashioned and the only games that girls could play at was pretending to be mothers. Ruth wanted to create a toy that allowed little girls to imagine the future. Yet when she pitched her idea of a teenage doll to Mattel’s directors and to her husband, co-founder of Mattel, they were unimpressed. “Ruth, no mother is going to buy her daughter a doll with breasts”, was her husband’s response.11

It was during a trip to Germany in 1956 that Ruth came across an adult doll: the Bild Lilli doll. The doll was based upon a comic strip that appeared in the tabloid Bild. This was exactly what Ruth had in mind. She purchased the doll to pitch to Mattel once again. With the help from local designer, Jack Ryan, she reinvented the Bild Lilli doll and named her Barbie.  Barbie made her commercial debut on 9 March 1959, priced at a mere $3.This Barbie wore a black and white striped swimsuit and had a signature ponytail. Marketed as a "teenage fashion doll", Barbie quickly became essential for young children, with girls aged 3 to 6 owning an average of 12 dolls.12 In the first year of production, Mattel sold an impressive 300,000 dolls.

Changing Notions of Femininity

“Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices” — Ruth Handler  

According to sociologist Mary Rogers, Barbie is “brimming with multiple meanings”.13 She is not just a toy, rather, she signifies how women had ever more choices opened to them as the twentieth century progressed. As Prown has put it, when a “society undergoes change…this manifests itself artifactually”.14 Barbie can be perceived as a reflection of the societal transformation that took place when she was introduced in the post-war period: a time when traditional gender roles were being challenged. In post-war American society, when women were increasingly balancing domestic and work responsibilities, Ruth sought to create a doll that encouraged independence and self-fulfillment. In an interview with Vogue the writer and commentator Susan Shapior reiterated Ruth’s thoughts on old-fashioned baby dolls. “Do you really want to say to a little girl you have to be a mummy to a chubby baby doll”, Shapior stated, “that’s saying you have to be a caretaker. You want to tell a three year old that her job is to be a caretaker”.15 Historian Juliette Peers has likewise contended that old-fashioned baby dolls are “more reductive of girls’ agency than Barbie”.16 Barbie was marketed as a versatile glamour doll with the potential to play out 120 careers through a simple outfit change, offering girls a broad canvas for their aspirations.17 Barbie could be an astronaut, an Olympic gold medalist, a doctor, an American air force pilot, or even a president. Shapior has argued that Barbie’s clothes are comparable to giving a child a “blank paper and a million crayons”.18  

While debates persist regarding Barbie's feminist or sexist connotations, some commentators, such as the writer M. G. Lord, consider her to be a feminist icon who ”pointed the way out of the kitchen for little girls”.19 As part of the research for her book The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie (2010), Tanya Lee Stone interviewed a range of women in their 50s who had owned Barbie dolls in their youth. One interviewee, Meg Cabot, recalled how she and her friends projected their desires on to the dolls. For example, Cabot claimed that her friend Erika wanted her Barbie to be an actress and “now she is a commercial voice-over actress”.20 Another friend, Natalie, “always wanted her Barbie to be a teacher” and went on to become a professor.21 Another of Stone’s interviewees, Laura, recalled how she loved dressing her Barbie in business suits and that these “early experiences of putting clothes together” led her to a career as a decorator. Looking back, Laura now feels that her Barbie was an early feminist: a woman who owned an orange convertible and “depending on the week would take either Ken or GI Joe for a spin”.22 Laura also highlighted how these men “were always in the passenger seat – she [Barbie] was in charge and they weren’t allowed to drive”.23 Actress Elizabeth Taylor also praised Barbie's ability to inspire children. As she put it, “our mothers grew up thinking they could be a stewardess”, but “Barbie came along and said you can be the pilot”.24 It is evident, then, that toys — much like other objects — serve as vehicles for encountering aspects of the adult world. Barbie's introduction in 1959 reflected changing notions of femininity in mid-twentieth century America, a stark departure from earlier eras when women's roles were more narrowly defined by household duties.

A Sign of The Times Barbie's enduring appeal revolves around her extensive wardrobe choices, which Ruth saw as reflecting trends in the contemporary world. Over the years, Barbie's clothing has served as a fashion guide  — from the moment that the doll went into production Barbie’s clothing lines mimicked adult fashion. Barbie’s first chief designer, Charlotte Johnson, travelled Europe to get the latest design inspirations from top brands such as Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Christian Dior. The first doll, inspired by 1950s glamour icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, sported a zebra-striped swimsuit, white sunglasses, and makeup (bold red lips and dark eyeliner), all in-line with the era's trends. As the 1960s rolled in, Barbie's style embraced tailored suits, long gloves, and of course the iconic 60s miniskirt. She also got a new bubble cut hairstyle and her makeup was changed to softer pinks and peaches. In the 1970s, Mattel introduced the Twist 'N Turn Barbie. Young girls could now rotate Barbie's waist. Thus, they could mimic the dynamic images of women that were ubiquitous in the media. Consequently, Barbie dolls serve as snapshots of twentieth century popular culture, evidencing evolving fashion and societal trends.


The success of the Barbie doll is likewise indicative of the heightened materialism that developed among children in America during the mid-twentieth century. Lenore Wright, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, has asserted that Barbie is an “uniquely empowering toy”, one that is not “grounded in her material possessions”.25 Rather, Barbie allows young girls to make-believe that they are doctors etc. Yet Wright's perspective on Barbie is not wholly accurate. Arguably, the very idea of the Barbie doll, as conceived by Ruth Handler, is inherently materialistic. It is true that, in theory, Barbie provides children with the opportunity to enact various adult roles. Nevertheless, these distinct roles and the resulting sense of empowerment that Barbie fosters are inherently tied to socioeconomic status and financial dependence. Since her inception, Barbie has accumulated over a billion outfits, making Mattel one of the world's largest apparel manufacturers. Moreover, Barbie is often seen with the latest homes, cars, and even more than 50 animals, all of which necessitate separate purchases. In a sense, the doll has always been a gateway drug designed to generate further purchases of clothes and accessories required in order to play out different fantasies. Young girls have felt compelled to collect Barbie's latest outfits and accessories so as to stay on trend. Crucially, this was the sole purpose of Barbie. Elliot Handler, Ruth’s husband, reiterated how:

“You get hooked on one and you have to buy the other. Buy the doll and then you buy the clothes. I know a lot of parents hate us for this, but it’s going to be around a long time.”26  

The first Barbie commercial, screened in 1959, not only showcased the doll itself, but also the accompanying "purses, hats, gloves, and gadgets". At this stage the Barbie doll was reasonably priced ($3) due to the new, lost-cost vinyl that was used in the production process. The problem, however, lay in the clothing that “girls had fallen in love with”.27 When the doll was launched, the accompanying outfits ranged from $1 to $5. By the early twenty-first century the prices had risen to around $7 to $14.28 Consequently, many young girls could afford the doll but not the clothes. It could be argued, therefore, that Barbie was a toy aimed at the upper middle-classes.

When Barbie appeared in the late 1950s, sewing was viewed as a primary skill in American households with many mothers, aunts, and grandmothers being capable seamstresses.29 As noted, many households could not afford the extra clothes, but mothers and grandmothers could sew “elegant and sophisticated outfits for Barbie”.30 While some young girls adored the handmade clothes that their grandmothers made, viewing them as beautiful and unique, this was not always the case. Lise, another of Stone’s interviewees, recalled having a friend whose “grandmother sewed her hundreds of matching Barbie outfits”.31 Yet Lise felt that this girl’s Barbie outfits were worthless because “they did not come in those plastic packages”.32 According to sociologist Malcolm Barnard, objects have no “absolute value” on their own.33 Rather, they are only meaningful in relation to other signs and discourses. Despite her friend owning the Barbie, without the official clothes to go with it the doll was worthless in Lise’s eyes. Another woman recalled that she did not want to “take her homemade clothes around kids who had store brought stuff” as she felt embarrassed.34 Peers has contended that Barbie serves as a foundation for “self-identity and self-esteem”, but that such self-esteem is not universal.35 Instead, it is largely dependent on the financial status of parents. 

Agnes Narin has studied the effects of deprivation and materialism on self-esteem in childhood.36 She has contended that consumer culture, which celebrates having more as a source of happiness and self-worth, has detrimental effects upon children's self-esteem, particularly with regard to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.37 Similar to the argument advanced by Barnard, Tora Kirkham has stressed that an object has the power to provide commonality and distance between individuals.38 In the twentieth century, material culture has increasingly influenced the lives of individuals and has even shaped children's identities. That a young girl felt embarrassed to the point where she avoided joining other children in play because she lacked the "necessary" store-bought clothes underscores the influence of materialism upon self-esteem. Analysing Barbie's role in consumer culture therefore illuminates the social impact of the “century of the child-consumer”.

Body Image 

“The dolls and movies give a different message than Barbie’s slogan: ‘Be who you wanna be’. The real message is ‘You can be who you wanna be…if you’re pretty.’”39  

Study of the Barbie phenomenon also highlights sexualised perceptions of women. For example, the theme song for the 1959 Barbie commercial reveals how the “hegemonic vision of heterosexuality” was marketed to young girls.40 Instead of emphasising Barbie's capabilities as a modern woman with choices, the theme song places importance on her outward appearance, particularly her petite and neat figure. The theme song’s ending is particularly interesting: it concludes with the line “Someday I’m going to be exactly like you”. The fact that the whole theme song revolves around the idea that Barbie’s beauty owes much to her skinny waist, and  concludes with this line, highlights how she was presented as an ideal to aspire too. 

Consequently, Barbie reflects the prevailing societal standards of beauty. A few years after the invention of Barbie, supermodels of the 1960s, such as Twiggy, likewise promoted this concept of “thin is hot, size fourteen is not”.41 One of the most shocking examples of this perspective is the 1965 Slumber Party Barbie. This included a small weight scale permanently set at 100lbs and a diet book titled How to Lose Weight containing a singular instruction: "Don't Eat". When the doll was reissued in 1966 the scales were removed. The book, however, remained. So society’s fixation with thinness as the epitome of beauty extended even to children's toys. 

The idea of a "hegemonic representation of heterosexuality" in the Barbie doll goes beyond marketing tactics: it is inherent in the doll's design. The 1959 Barbie was extremely stiff — she only had minimal joints where the arms, legs, and head were attached to the body. While a swivel waist was added in 1965 so as to facilitate dance poses, it was primarily marketed as a feature designed to facilitate her glamorous lifestyle. Even with subsequent additions, like clasping hands in 1972, the focus remained on carrying accessories.42 If you compare the physical shapes of Barbie with that of the 1966 Action Man you can see how traditional gender stereotypes are hardwired into the designs of toys. Barbie embodies the archetype of females as passive or submissive figures whereas Action Man — with his “twenty moveable joints” for combat — epitomises the conventional notion of males as active and assertive figures.

Barbie's influence upon body image and notions of beauty is evident in personal accounts. Take Pamela Brandt’s Barbie Buys a Bra (1999), for example. One of the inimitable features of Barbie was the fact that she was the first doll with breasts. Brandt recalls growing up playing with Barbie and finding her perfect body intriguing. Brandt was fascinated by the way in which “Barbie’s breasts were perfect” — they were not “flat and sagging”, they were “well-made”.43 When she was eleven, Brandt’s mother took her to have a bra measurement taken. When looking in the mirror she began crying and recalls thinking that this was not what breasts should look like, as hers were not asymmetrical: “the left one was larger than the right”, whereas Barbie’s were perfection.44 That a girl could be moved to tears because her breasts did not match the shape of an 11-and-a-half-inch plastic doll evidences the profound impact that objects can exert on young minds. Similarly, Eliza, who was also interviewed as part of Stone’s study, suggsted that you “could search the whole world and not find a person who looks like her [Barbie]”, a statement which highlights the unattainable physical standards set by the doll.45 Thus, Barbie has not only provided a gateway into a realm of imaginative careers, but also into a world where achieving a specific body shape has seemed almost unattainable. Combined with the theme song and Pamela's experience (described above), Barbie ultimately embodies and conveys a very narrow, exclusive vision of attractiveness — one centred on a tiny waist and large breasts.46 Consequently, Barbie is indicative of the “hegemonic vision of heterosexuality”.


Over the years, Barbie has faced criticism. Many have felt that she is a materialistic sex symbol. Others regard her as a forward thinking role model, especially in the wake of the 2023 live-action movie. This article, however, has shown how analysing material culture can bring to light multiple perspectives. Study of the Barbie phenomenon sheds light on the various attitudes and values that prevailed in mid to late-twentieth century American society. She is, so to speak, the sign of the times. Barbie is indicative, moreover, of the changing roles of women, developments in toy manufacturing, the effects of materialism and beauty standards upon self-esteem, as well as global fashion trends.


  1. Arthur Berger, Reading Matter: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Material Culture (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992), 7.
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Jules Prown, “The truth of material culture: history or fiction”, in History From Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. David W. Kingery, and Stephen Lubar (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 1.
  4.   Don Richard-Cox, “Barbie and Her Playmates”, Journal of Popular Culture 11, no. 2 (1997), 303.
  5. Kristin Noelle Weissman, Barbie: the Icon, the Image, the Ideal: an Analytical Interpretation of the Barbie Doll in Popular Culture (USA: Universal Publishers, 1999), 33.
  6. John Clarke, “Histories of Childhood” in Childhood Studies: An Introduction, ed. Dominic Wyse (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 3. 
  7.  Ibid.
  8.  Various Authors, A Book of Vintage Designs and Instructions for Making Children's Toys and Models (London: Read Books, 2011).
  9.  Ibid. 
  10. Weissman, Barbie, 33. 
  11. Tanya Lee Stone, The Good, The Bad and The Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us (New York: Speak, 2010), 27. 
  12. Ibid., 7.
  13. Mary Rogers, Barbie Culture (California: Sage Publications, 1999), 2. 
  14. Prown, “The truth of material culture: history or fiction”, 13.
  15.  Ibid., 23.
  16. Juliette Peers, The Fashion Doll: From Bebe Jumeau to Barbie (Oxford: Berg, 2004), 2. 
  17. Stone, The Good, The Bad and The Barbie, 6.
  18. Ibid., 52.
  19. Ibid., 7.
  20. Ibid., 3.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 32.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 42.
  25. Lenore Wright, "The Wonder of Barbie: Popular Culture and the Making of Female Identity", Feminine Politics in Popular Culture: The Construction of Gender, 4, no. 1 (2003), 21.
  26. Stone, The Good, The Bad and The Barbie, 38. 
  27. Ibid., 32. 
  28. Barbie Collectors, “1959 First Ever Barbie Commercial”, YouTube (created 28 October 2008). Available at:
  29. Ibid., 38. 
  30. Ibid. 
  31. Ibid., 39.
  32. Ibid., 39.
  33. Malcolm Barnard, Fashion as Communication (London: Routledge, 1996), 154.
  34. Stone, The Good, The Bad and The Barbie, 39. 
  35. Peers, The Fashion Doll, 11. 
  36. Paul Bottomley, Agnes Narim, Johanne Dana Ormrod, “Those Who Have Less Want More But does it make them feel bad?: Deprivation, Materialism and Self-Esteem in Childhood” in Childhood and Consumer Culture, ed. David Buckingham, and David Tingstad (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 194. 
  37. Ibid. 
  38. Judy Attfield, Pat Kirkham, “Introduction” in The Gendered Object, ed. Pat Kirkham (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), 2.
  39. Stone, The Good, The Bad and The Barbie, 42.
  40. Carol Ockham, “Barbie meets Bouguereau” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zedlis McDonough (London: Touchstone, 1999), 75.
  41. Stone, The Good, The Bad and The Barbie, 47.
  42. Attfield and Kirkham, “Introduction”, 84.
  43. Pamela Brandt, “Barbie Buys a Bra” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zedlis McDonough (London: Touchstone, 1999), 53.
  44.  Ibid. 
  45. Stone, The Good, The Bad and The Barbie, 47.
  46. Rogers, Barbie Culture, 1. 

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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