Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her
New York: Collins Business, 2009. Bibliography, index. ix, 278 pp. $24.99 cloth. ISBN: 9780061341311
While the title may lend itself to the assumption that this is a book about Ruth Handler and the invention of the Barbie doll, author Robin Gerber provides a much more detailed historical account of the founding of the Mattel Toy Company, Ruth Handler’s role in the company, the development of the world’s most iconographic doll, and Handler’s fall from grace amid a probing investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Gerber presents her work as a nicely interwoven biography and business history of both Ruth Handler and Mattel. The author looks at Handler’s early life and childhood in Colorado, her move to California in the 1940s, and her courtship, marriage, and business partnership with her soul mate, Elliot Handler. The Handlers founded Mattel in the 1940s, first as a Lucite picture-frame company before venturing into the toy business with the Uke-A-Doodle ukulele. Gerber explores Mattel’s move to toy manufacturing and the struggles both Handlers faced, particularly Ruth, balancing a career and a family. The author analyzes Mattel’s early marketing and production strategies and the financial woes of this start-up company. Through all of this stood Ruth Handler, portrayed by the author as a strong-willed, motivated, and savvy marketer and businesswoman. She was not afraid of trying new ideas, nor did she dwell on the company’s early failures. By the 1950s, Gerber argues, Mattel began to make strides in the industry by reusing popular technology, such as a voice box mechanism, in a variety of toys and by gambling on a major advertising promotion on The Mickey Mouse Club television series, a move that shifted the entire industry towards marketing toys year round instead of the traditional time in the weeks before Christmas. Handler viewed this move as one of the best decisions the company ever made, and it provided a national platform for the introduction of the Barbie doll.