Yesterday's Magazette

9 – Barbie Dolls

Growing Up With Barbie

By Sara Etgen-Baker

Like most little girls who grew up in the 50s, I loved playing with my baby dolls. Truthfully, the only toy dolls available were baby dolls. So as I matured, I quickly discarded the baby dolls and-like most pre-teen girls-played with the older, teenage-like paper dolls.

My friends and I frequently exchanged paper dolls and traded paper doll clothes. We spent countless hours dressing our paper dolls with the outfits that we punched out of the paper doll books purchased at the nearby TG&Y Store in Garland, Texas. In fact, my favorite paper doll was Betsy McCall who modeled fashions made from McCall’s patterns. Although Betsy was FREE, she was only two-dimensional and somewhat boring.


So, when Mattel introduced the first Barbie teenage fashion doll in 1959, I desperately wanted one and formulated a plan designed to convince my mother, a frugal and tenacious woman, that I should have a Barbie. Since the closest place to purchase a Barbie was our neighborhood TG&Y, my plan included cheerfully reciting the Barbie television commercial as we walked down the doll aisle: “Barbie … beautiful Barbie. I’ll make believe I’m you.”

Apparently, my mother, unmoved, quickened her pace toward the end of the doll aisle. Undaunted, I quickly said, “Mother, I must have a Barbie! Pleeease … pleeease. She’s swell!”

Mother’s objections and fearful tone perplexed me. “No, darling, No!,” she said firmly. “Barbie is too expensive. Barbie is too … sexy. No!”

Sexy or not, I wanted-no needed-a Barbie with her black and white striped bathing suit, ponytail, womanly figure, and fashionable clothes. Just as we rounded the comer to the next aisle, our shopping cart struck Mrs. Schneider, the TG&Y sales clerks. Mrs. Schneider was also our neighbor with whom my mother frequently exchanged German recipes and discussed their mutual pride for their shared German heritage.

Mrs. Schneider turned to us and said, “Did you know that Barbie originated in Germany? Her name was Bild Lilli.”

We were amazed as Mrs. Schneider recounted the brief history of Bild Lilli and her US cousin, Barbie. “Bild Lilli” was a German fashion doll; like Barbie, Lilli was sexy, so many parents considered her inappropriate for children.

However, Bild Lilli’s popularity grew; at the height of Bild Lilli’s popularity, Ruth Handler visited Germany and purchased one Bild Lilli doll for her daughter and another to show her husband, co-founder of Mattel Toys. Eventually, Mattel purchased the rights to Bild Lilli and renamed her Barbie after Ruth’s daughter, Barbara.”

As Mrs. Schneider ended her sales pitch, she winked at me and said, “You see … Barbie is a German-American like us!” Even though I restrained myself, I wanted to hug Mrs. Schneider. Whether intentional or not, she appealed to my mother’s Germanic pride.

My heart raced as I wondered if this could be the moment I had waited for. Would I at last have my precious, fashionable Barbie?

I watched mother intently as the sternness in her eyes softened. Then she said, “That is very interesting. How much does this Barbie doll cost?”

“Barbie costs about $6; individual outfits cost $.80 to $1.40,” replied Mrs. Schneider.

Within minutes, I left the store proudly with my own Barbie doll and a prudent amount of fashionable Barbie clothes. As we climbed into our station wagon, my mother said evenly, “Barbie is still too sexy for my blood, but she is of German origin. That’s the real reason I bought her for you.”

Even though I felt victorious that day, I’ve often wondered what was mother’s real objection to my owning a Barbie doll. Perhaps Barbie symbolized that I was no longer the little girl that she was comfortable raising. Maybe Barbie embodied the fear she had in raising a teenage girl during the upheaval of social conventions that occurred in the 60s.

Possibly she believed that dissuading my interest in Barbie would somehow postpone the inevitable, just a little bit longer. Nonetheless, I still have my Barbie doll and the wonderful memory of that day.

Vol. 39 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2012


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