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February 11, 2009 > Barbie Celebrates 50th Birthday

Barbie Celebrates 50th Birthday

By Simon Wong

Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known as "Barbie" to millions of children and adults, celebrates her 50th birthday in March 2009.

American businesswoman Ruth Handler (1916-2002), wife of Elliot Handler, a co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company, is credited with the fashion doll's creation. She noticed that her daughter gave her paper dolls adult roles when playing. At the time, most dolls resembled infants and she realized there might be a gap in the market for an adult-figured doll. While in Europe with her children Barbara and Kenneth in 1956, she was inspired by a German adult-formed doll called Bild Lilli and bought three of them.

Handler redesigned the doll and named it Barbie after her daughter. The doll was launched at the American International Toy Fair, New York, on March 9, 1959, the date used as Barbie's official birthday.

What is recognized as the world's finest collection of Barbie dolls is located in Union City, California, courtesy of Sandi Holder of Sandi Holder's Doll Attic.

Holder, who moved to the Bay Area from San Diego when she was ten years old, owns the business which is an authorized Mattel dealer selling Barbie and Barbie-collectibles. Few customers visit in person; mail order, conventions and two auctions per year account for the bulk of the sales.

The premises also houses a museum dedicated to Barbie, her beau Ken Carson, who was launched in 1961, named after Handler's son, and her siblings. The dolls and associated items on display are Holder's own personal collection that has been assembled painstakingly over twenty years and span five decades of Barbie history. "I'd estimate there are several thousand items; too many to count," she said. She has welcomed visitors from Russia, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.

Barbie has had many careers. In 1959, she was a Teenage Fashion Model. In 1964, she went to college. The Campus Sweet Shop setting that accompanied "Barbie Goes to College" has been recreated as a life-size movie set at Sandi Holder's Doll Attic by Disney and Pixar. "This is the party room that we use to host birthday parties for little girls, baby showers and other events. Each girl receives a Barbie and spends hours dressing their doll," explained Holder.

The business started as a hobby. Holder wanted to recreate her own childhood collection for her daughters, now 24 and 26 years old, and arouse their interest in high quality fashion dolls. When they were younger, the high fashion and couture that she wanted them to see were not available. She attended doll shows to build the collection, began acquiring duplicates and saw a potential business. Begun in a garage, it is now one of the biggest of its kind in the world.

"As a child, I just loved Barbie because of the fashion but as an adult I wanted to recreate a piece of my childhood," said Holder. "Many of the women, whose children attend the parties, gaze at the dolls because a lot of Barbie play is associated with fond childhood memories. That's why I think Barbie has remained so popular because she is something special to every generation."

The collection includes the first Barbie doll which sports a black-and-white zebra striped swimsuit and topknot blonde ponytail. The doll was also available as a brunette. There are also prototypes, such as the "Princess Diana" doll, which was never produced because the Royal Family rejected it. Limited edition dolls and designer dolls by Donatella Versaci and Bob Mackie, who designs for singer and actress Cher, and more modern and reproduction dolls also make up the collection. Everything is museum quality.

"As for limited editions, there may only be 999 units available worldwide. Mattel divides them between the authorized dealers. That's done internally at Mattel. We receive only a small quantity that we then share among our customers. It's what makes collecting exciting," explained Holder.

"Mattel is organizing a big 50th Birthday Celebration for Barbie. They will rent a home in Malibu and designer John Adler will transform the beach house, Barbie-style. New York Fashion Week will recognize Barbie in Bryant Park on February 14, 2009, and designers, including Vera Wang who has a $15,000 wedding dress ready, will produce couture for her. I shall attend the National Barbie Convention which will be held in Washington DC this year," commented the expert.

"Focus on what you like or enjoy rather than on the value of the doll," is the advice Holder gives to anyone wishing to start a collection. "Many people realize that some of the vintage dolls are valuable. My business holds the world record for the highest price paid for a doll which was over $27,000."

Holder has recently co-authored "Barbie Doll: A Rare Beauty" with Sharon Korbeck Verboten. The 256-page, hard-cover book contains over 400 color illustrations and is due for publication in September 2010 by Krause Publications.

Ms. Holder is regularly consulted by Mattel on Barbie matters and writes about vintage Barbie for the toy company's website.

The Today Show recently finished filming at the museum to celebrate Barbie's 50th Birthday and will air on March 9, 2009. Dateline ABC is also expected to record an interview.

Sandi Holder's Doll Attic
33361 Croatian Way, Union City
(510) 489-0221

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