Simply the breast:
Ruth Handler's complicated legacy

Whether it’s fond reminders of your childhood or unhealthy, unrealistic expectations of women, the name „Barbie“ makes you feel something when you hear it. „Ruth Handler“ on the other hand, probably makes you shrug. 

Ruth Handler is the person who created Barbie (first sold in 1959) and co-founded the Mattel company that produces the toy. No matter what you think of the world’s best-selling doll ever, Handler’s story is a fascinating one. It includes being inspired in Germany by what some call a „sex doll,“ showing skeptical 1950s businessmen the enormous value of women’s ideas, a criminal fraud conviction, and pioneering prosthetic breasts for breast cancer survivors. 

breast – Busen  

fond reminder – liebevolle Erinnerung 

unrealistic expectations – unrealistische Erwartungen 

makes sb. shrug – kann man nur mit den Schultern zucken 

co-found – mitbegründen 

toy – Spielzeug 

best-selling – bestverkauft 

enormous value – enormen Wert 

fraud conviction – Verurteilung wegen Betrugs  

pioneering prosthetic breasts – Vorreiter für Brustprothesen  

A business-savvy child of immigrants 

Born Ruth Moskowicz, Ruth’s parents were both eastern European, Jewish immigrants to the United States. Her mother’s health was so bad that Ruth was raised by a much older sister and her husband.  

Nearing 20, Ruth found a job at an office in Hollywood at Paramount during a vacation. Her teenage sweetheart, Elliot Handler, followed her. After the two married, Ruth worked while Elliot attended a school for design.  

Elliot made affordable furniture for the couple’s house out of plastic, and Ruth encouraged him to make other household items to sell. Thanks largely to Ruth’s business sense, the two eventually sold $2 million worth of these products. 

The couple later teamed up with Harold „Matt“ Matson on a different business that started seeing big profits from creating miniature furniture for doll houses. That enterprise turned into the toy company Mattel, a combination of the name „Matt“ and the „El“ from Elliot. 

Notably, no part of Ruth’s name was included. 

business-savvy – Gespür für Geschäfte 

be raised by – wurde erzogen von 

teenage-sweetheart – Jugendliebe 

attend school – Schule besuchen 

affordable – erschwinglich 

couple – Pärchen  

largely to – weitgehend 

business sense – Geschäftssinn 

enterprise – Untenehmung 

turn into – sich verwandeln 

notably – auffallend  ist hier 

Dolls with chests 

Ruth said she got the idea for Barbie after seeing her daughter play with paper dolls of adult women she’d cut out of magazines. At the time, all dolls in the U.S. looked like babies or children. 

When she pitched Barbie to other decision-makers at Mattel, none of them believed in it. They were male and thought no mother would buy her daughter a doll with breasts. When the Handlers visited Europe on vacation in the 1950s, Ruth learned that they were wrong.  

There she saw a doll called Lilli based on a cartoon character in Germany’s Bild newspaper. With a large chest, slim waist, and blond hair, the dolls were originally meant to be gag gifts men could buy for each other. However, they’d also caught the attention of young girls for use as toys – just as Ruth thought they would. 

Armed with this proof-of-concept, Ruth got Mattel to produce a similar doll (so similar, in fact, that Bild filed a lawsuit against Mattel that the two businesses settled out of court), and the rest is toy-making history. 

chest – Brust 

to pitch – (Thema) aufwerfen 

decision-makers – Entscheidungsträger  

slim waist – schmale Taille 

gag gifts– Scherzartikel Geschenk 

catch (caught-caught) the attention – Aufmerksamkeit auf sich lenken 

armed with – gewappnet mit 

proof-of-concept – Wirksamkeitsnachweis  

file a lawsuit – vor Gericht klagen

Indictments and prostheses 

Thanks to Barbie, other hit toys, and innovative marketing spearheaded by Ruth, Mattel became a hugely successful business. However, not everything was perfect for the Handlers. 

In the 70s, she and Elliot were indicted for falsifying sales records to make Mattel stock more valuable. Along with five years of probation, Ruth lost her position as Mattel’s president. 

Around the same time, Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. The experience made her a prominent advocate for breast cancer prevention measures at a time when talking about the disease publicly was taboo.  

Additionally, she started a company called „Nearly Me“ to make comfortable breast prostheses because she had found no great options during her own search for them. The business still exists and sells prostheses, swimwear, and bras for women who’ve had mastectomies.  

Ruth died in 2002, leaving behind a mixed and controversial legacy in the world of femininity. 

indictment – Anklage 

prostheses – Prothese 

spearheaded by – eingeführt von 

indicted for falsifying sales records – angeklagt für die Fälschung von Umsatzrekorden 

valuable – wertvoll  

probation – Bewährung 

mastectomy – Brustamputation 

advocate – Befürworter  

breast cancer – Brustkrebs 

prevention measures – Präventionsmaßnahmen  

disease – Krankheit 

taboo – Tabu 

bra – BH 

legacy – Erbe 

femininity – Fraulichkeit 

Excite Your Senses

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