Hard to get away from 'Barbie and Ruth'

n It’s the story of one woman’s success
in a man’s world.
When you were a kid, danger lurked everywhere.
It seemed like there was always another bad guy waiting to create chaos, and only you could save the world from complete destruction by using your cap gun or chemistry set. Being a spy, cowboy or playground warrior was tough work for a kid.
And if world violence wasn’t imminent, the danger was in not having enough clothes for baby or Barbie. Being a grade-school “mom” and fashionista wasn’t easy, either.
So what was your favorite toy when you were a kid?
For millions of Boomers, no home was complete without a bevy of Barbies. But if her creator had listened to advisors, Barbie Millicent Roberts might never have existed. Read more in the new book “Barbie and Ruth” by Robin Gerber.
Ruthie Mosko was a go-getter, maybe because she was the 10th child of immigrants who came from Poland in the early 1900s to hammer out a new life for themselves in America. Maybe it was because Ruth was raised by an elder sister who doted on her and set high expectations. Either way, Ruth was assertive and self-assured by the time she met Elliot Handler at a carnival dance.
Perfect balance
Elliot was a quiet, introspective artist known for his vision, creativity and skillful hands. Soon after they were wed in 1938, Ruth offered to sell Elliot’s products. It was a good marriage in both senses: Ruth and Elliot were deeply in love, and Ruth’s aggressive, fearless sales tactics offset Elliot’s reluctance to step into the limelight.
By the end of World War II, Mattel (named because an early partner’s name, Matt, fit nicely with Elliot’s) had a popular line of musical toys, including a jack-in-the-box and a crank-music ukulele. Later, the company was a pioneer in advertising to children – a market that nobody thought viable – on a burgeoning medium called television. And that advertising included Barbie.
Nobody except Ruth Handler thought there was a market for a little girls’ toy that looked like a big girl. Everybody said the toy would flop but research was conducted, consultants gave advice, and the doll was pushed through. Now, 50 years later, a Barbie doll is purchased every three seconds.
Part biography, part business, part history, part pop-culture, “Barbie and Ruth” is one of those books you just don’t want to put down. It’s a story of American culture, particularly of the type that we Baby Boomers made and thrived upon; and of a corporation born, nurtured and lost by those who created it.
Author Robin Gerber doggedly researched the life of Ruth Handler, an unconventional, “bawdy and outrageous,” ambitious woman who ignored social mores to become successful at a time when women were largely subservient to men. In the process, as Gerber relates, Handler set various marketing precedents and broke through a “concrete ceiling.” Sadly, at the same time, her children paid the price.
If you remember your first Barbie (or second or third or 10th), pick up this don’t-miss book. Enjoying “Barbie and Ruth” is child’s play.
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with two dogs and more than 9,500 books.

Leslie Criss

Click video to hear audio