9 March 1959: Barbie is unveiled to the American public

Barbie turns 56 today. Over 800 million dolls have been sold since she was unveiled at the American Toy Fair in 1959.

Barbie, the ever-young symbol of plastic womanhood, turns 56 today. Ruth Handler was the brains behind the world's best-selling doll. Her daughter, Barbara, didn't like playing with her baby dolls – the only type of doll available at the time in the US – she preferred playing with imaginary adult dolls she had made from paper. Handler quickly realised there was a gap in the toy market.

Although adult dolls didn't exist in the US, they did in Europe. In Germany, there was the happily named Bild Lilli doll, which was based on a German comic strip. Handler had already founded a company, Mattel, with her husband in 1945, which made and sold picture frames. Soon, it moved on to toy houses and furniture, and wasted no time in buying the rights to Lilli, bringing her over to the US, where Handler renamed her Barbie, after her daughter.

She was introduced to the public on this day in 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City. She was 27.5cm (11 inches) tall and, despite her image as the archetypal blonde, was available as both a blonde and a brunette.

Barbie was soon in huge demand and sold over 350,000 units in her first year of production. She was so popular that within four years she was joined by a boyfriend (Ken, named after Handler's son), a best friend and a little sister, as well as dozens of accessories including dresses, houses, furnishings and even cars.

Barbie has faced accusations that her image embeds materialism into children from a very young age and, worse yet, promotes a figure and a feminine image that is grossly unnatural. But despite this, Mattel broke the $1bn annual sales barrier in 1993 and to date have sold over 800 million dolls in the Barbie collection worldwide.

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