The Birth of an Icon: Barbie's Debut in 1959

The Birth of an Icon: Barbie’s Debut in 1959






The Birth of an Icon: Barbie's Debut in 1959

Edited by Deborah Rhodes-Callender | Digital Designer


In the world of toys, few figures have achieved the iconic status of Barbie. The brainchild of Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, Barbie made her debut on March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. This marked the beginning of a cultural phenomenon that would span generations, sparking both admiration and controversy.

Inspiration and Design

Handler's inspiration for Barbie stemmed from watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, often imagining them in adult roles. Recognizing a gap in the market for a doll that allowed girls to envision their futures, Handler set out to create a three-dimensional fashion doll with an adult figure. The design was based on the German Bild Lilli doll, a novelty toy for adults.


Barbie's Production and Rarity

The first Barbie, available in both blonde and brunette variations, was a vision of mid-century fashion. Dressed in a chic black-and-white striped swimsuit, cat-eye sunglasses, and a signature ponytail, she exuded confidence and glamour. Mattel's designers meticulously crafted her wardrobe, reflecting the latest trends of the time. The initial production of Barbie dolls was relatively limited, making the original 1959 models a sought-after collector's item today. Due to their age and delicate nature, finding an original Barbie in pristine condition, especially with all of her original accessories, is a rare feat.


 On March 9, 1959, Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair.

On that fateful day in March, toy buyers and industry insiders gathered at the New York Toy Fair, eager to discover the latest trends and innovations. Among the many displays, one doll stood out from the rest: Barbie. With her striking black-and-white striped swimsuit, cat-eye sunglasses, and signature ponytail, she exuded an air of sophistication that was unlike any doll seen before.

Initial Reception and Success

Despite initial skepticism from toy buyers who were accustomed to baby dolls, Barbie quickly became a sensation. Her adult figure and glamorous lifestyle appealed to girls who longed to project themselves into the future. The doll's success was fueled by Mattel's aggressive marketing campaign, which included television commercials and print advertisements.

Evolution and Impact

Over the decades, Barbie has evolved to reflect changing social norms and aspirations. She has taken on numerous careers, from astronaut to doctor to entrepreneur, inspiring generations of girls to dream big. Barbie has also faced criticism for her unrealistic body proportions and promotion of consumerism. Nevertheless, she remains a powerful symbol of female empowerment and possibility.


In July of 2023 when the motion picture Barbie was released, Margot Robbie wears Barbie’s vintage bathing suit in the beginning scene, telling the story of Barbie's birth.  Barbie grossed $636.2 million in the United States and Canada, and $809.4 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $1.446 billion.  “Barbie” is officially the highest-grossing domestic film by a female director of all time. 


Barbie's legacy extends far beyond the toy aisle. She has been the subject of countless books, films, and documentaries. She has been celebrated as a fashion icon and a cultural touchstone. Whether you love her or critique her, there's no denying that Barbie has left an indelible mark on the world of toys and popular culture.

The Barbie of Today

In recent years, Mattel has made strides to address the criticisms leveled at Barbie. They have introduced dolls with diverse body types, skin tones, and hairstyles. They have also created Barbies with disabilities, celebrating inclusivity and representation. Today, Barbie continues to evolve, reflecting the changing world and inspiring new generations of children to imagine a future without limits.


Re-Sale of Vintage Barbies

According to many sources, the original barbie has sold up to $27,450. Values are highest for dolls in mint condition and with original accessories​​. Not a bad return considering she sold for $3 originally! Coming up in our Barbie and Other Contemporary Dolls auction on July 10th at 8:00 PM is the Vintage 1958 Bathing Suit Barbie in lot #2011.


Lot #2011: Two Vintage Barbies and Two Vintage Barbie Cases 

Go to Auction - Click to Bid

Offering 275+ lots of Barbie and other Contemporary Dolls to include Barbie & Family, Jason Wu, Sybarite SUPERDOLL, Alexander, Artist Dolls, supplies and much more!