November 4, 1916
Born In: Denver, Colorado, USA
Died On: April 27, 2002
Career: Entrepreneur, inventor
Ruth Handler was a famous American businesswoman who established a great empire along with her husband Izzy Handler, called ‘Mattel’. She grew up to become the president of the company. Ruth Handler became more famous due to the invention of the most famous of all and the first of its kinds ‘Barbie doll’, which she called as her ‘dream doll’. Ruth Handler changed the face of the toy industry with her creative inventions and showed the world what a dynamic business is like. Known for her marketing innovations Ruth was also responsible for the invention of prosthetic breast business, which she took up as an initiative to eradicate the taboo stuck with such diseases. Read on the profile to know about the childhood, life and time line of Ruth Handler.
Ruth Handler was born on the 4th of November 1916 in Denver, Colorado. She was the youngest of the ten children born to Jacob and Ida Mosko, the Polish immigrants. Handler’s father was a blacksmith who fled from Poland to avoid serving in the Russian army. Ida Mosko, Handler’s mother soon became ill after giving birth to her. At the age of 6 months Handler was sent to live with her older sister Sarah. Ruth stayed at Sarah’s home until she was 19. An interesting fact about the inventor of ‘barbie doll’ is that as a child she never liked playing with dolls, she rather loved earning tips working in her sister’s drugstore. Ruth preferred work to play and grew up in a family where the idea of women working outside was not at all unusual. Her family’s entrepreneurial spirits were the main reason for the development of enthusiasm in Ruth Handler.
Ruth Handler started her career taking up a job as a secretary at Paramount studios. By this time Ruth was married and her husband studied in an art school and designed household products like bookends and candle holders. It was not long that the passionate couple started their first company together and named it ‘Elzac’. The company’s line of production was expanded from common household items to giftware and costume jewelry and the company became a $2 million business, but the numbers didn’t satisfy the Handlers. Ruth encouraged her husband to produce the pieces and she herself agreed to do the selling. She negotiated a grand contract with Douglas Aircraft, in which the cast models of the Douglas DC 3 airplane were to be given to the customers for Christmas. This was the time when the couple got completely in the business.
Establishment Of Mattel
Dissatisfied with their success in the business world, the Handlers joined hands with other designer, Harold “Matt” Matson, and started to manufacture picture frames. The couple started the business of picture frames in their garage and in the meanwhile also started manufacturing doll house furniture made out of scraps from the picture frame enterprise. Using yet another merger of the name Elliot and a partner's name, the company was called Mattel which dealt with manufacturing dolls. The company gained a profit in 1945 and the Handlers were into the doll business completely. The company followed up on entertainer Arthur Godfrey’s new popularity and the public’s interest in the Ukulele in search of a new product for their company. This research gave birth to the company’s first successful product, a toy ukulele called the Uke-A-Doodle that was released in the year 1947. The release of the toy was a great learning experience for Handler as she was getting used to discover ways to attain patent protection and thwart imitators. After the success of ‘ukulele’ the talented couple managed a series of innovations that put ‘Mattel’ on the map of the business world. Mattel became the first company to make toys out of a mixture of materials. Handlers also were the first to realize the importance of recycling components in a variety of toys. But, the most revolutionary advancement of ‘Mattel’ was the use of television which was still in its infancy to advertize their toys, in the 1950s, when the advertising of toys was still through catalogs and trade shows, generally focusing only on Christmas season. Ruth Handler along with her husband changed the entire picture of advertising in 1955 when Mattel buy a year’s exclusive sponsorship of ABC’s new program, The Mickey Mouse Club. The show was a great hit and so were the sales of Mattel’s toys giving birth to an all new advertising style.
Barbie: The Beginning
Handler noticed her daughter and realized that she was little interested in playing with the baby dolls available n those times. She preferred dressing up adult paper dolls and pretends them to be grownups. This inspired Handler to push across her idea of manufacturing an adult doll in her company. But she met repeated resistance from Mattel’s predominately male sales force and executives. In the year 1956, Handler went with her children on a trip to Europe where they were fascinated looking at a doll that looked like an adult woman, quite different from the baby dolls owned by children back home. This rekindled Handler’s dream of manufacturing a big doll and her researchers spend 3 yrs to create Handler’s dream doll using the German doll as an inspiration.
The finished product was an 11½ inch blonde with a marvelous figure and high heels which made her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York in 1959. The doll however did not thrill the buyers at the show. It was officially called ‘Barbie Teenage Fashion Model’. Around 351,000 Barbies were sold in the first year of their invention—a sales record for Mattel—and the demands grew so high that it took three years for the company to meet the demands. The success of Barbie led to the creation of her boyfriend ‘Ken’ as well (named after Handler’s son), and with time other family and friends of Barbie were also produced along with hundreds of outfits and accessories.
Handler’s Barbie also pulled in a series of criticism from feminists and others, who were concerned about the fact that Barbie’s unlikely proportions will send a wrong message to young girls. But, this kind of criticism went like a passing air and Handler continued improvising and popularizing her dream doll ‘Barbie’, with different careers all directed towards giving vast options to the young girls of America.
The Growth And Decline Of Mattel
With the success of Barbie, Mattel also concentrated on varied diverse toy lines which grew to include ‘Chatty Cathy’, ‘See n Say’, ‘Hot Wheels’, ‘Creepy Crawlers’ and ‘Incredible Edibles’, all becoming popular and profit raisers for the company whose president Ruth Handler became in the year 1967.
However, as everything that goes up comes down, same was the case with Mattel which in 1970 faced difficult times due to political and social instability in the America, causing Mattel’s stocks to fall for two consecutive quarters. The losses led to shareholder lawsuits and an U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry that revealed accounting irregularities. The Handlers were accused of forging financial documents to raise stock prices and in turn get loans for the company. These criticisms were followed by the resignation of both husband and wife from Mattel in 1975.
In 1978, Handler was indicted for mail fraud and false reporting to the SEC, with the commission. She and Elliott had repeatedly denied any knowledge of wrongdoing, so Handler pled no contest. She was fined and sentenced to community service.
Unfortunately in the year 1970 Ruth Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a modified radical mastectomy, which was often used at the time to combat the disease. But, because of lack of good breast prosthesis, Handler decided to make one herself. With the help of expert craftsman Peyton Massey, Handler designed a line of realistic artificial breast fashioned from foam and silicon and she named the product “Nearly Me”. She also formed the Ruthton Corporation to sell her product which was launched with an intention to demystify the taboo in those years.
With this invention of hers Handler became an outspoken person and an advocate for early detection of breast cancer and she also offered her medical specialty as a way for women to feel good about themselves again. Ruth dreamt of removing the taboo surrounding breast cancer and advertised her product in all possible ways to make it popular among women.
She was credited as a writer of the 1987 film Barbie and the Rockers: Out of this World. Handler was also inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1997.
Ruth Handler married her teenage lover Izzy Handler in 1938 in Denver, with her family’s reluctant blessings. They gave birth to two kids and named them Barbara Handler, Kenneth Handler.
She died in California from complications of colon cancer surgery on April 27, 2002, aged 85.
1916: Ruth Handler was born
1938: Ruth married Izzy Handler
1947: Uke-A-Doodle, Mattel’s first successful product was launched
1955: Mattel offered to sponsor ABC’s show ‘Mickey Mouse’ and introduced a new way of advertizing toys through television
1959: Barbie Teenage Fashion Model, first Barbie product was launched
1967: Ruth Handler became president of the company Mattel
1970: Mattel faced political and social instability
1970: Ruth Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer
1975: Ruth and her husband Izzy Handler resigned from Mattel
1987: Ruth was credited as the writer of the film Barbie and the Rockers: Out of this World
1997: Ruth got inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame
2002: Ruth Handler passed away