Barbie, Barbie, Barbie… On the Heels of a Billion Dollar Movie, Barbie Dolls Have Never Been More Popular

January 29th, 2024

The first Barbie doll created in 1959 is displayed during an exhibition dedicated to the Barbie doll at “la Nef des jouets ” on March 7, 2019 in Soultz, France. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images) (detail)

The Barbie doll was first presented to the public in 1959, at the American Toy Fair in New York City. She was priced at $3 and made in Japan for Mattel toys. She would go on to become one of the most iconic American toys of the 20th as well as 21st century.

 Created by Mattel’s co-founder, Ruth Handler, Barbie was inspired by gag-gift doll from West Germany named Bild Lilli, who was based on character in a German newspaper comic strip.

Doll made of all rigid plastic with jointed limbs, blond hair in a ponytail with a front curl, painted black earrings and heels. The doll is dressed in a blue and white polka dot dress. The Bild Lilli doll is based upon the cartoon character ‘Lilli’ created by German cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien for the newspaper Bild-Zeitung, Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Sold as a “fashion doll”, and produced from 1955-1964. Ruth had come across the Bild Lilli toy doll on her European travels and thought the fashion doll concept might be a good fit for the American marketplace. And now, almost 65 years later, we can certainly say, she was not wrong.

Ruth Handler, executive of Mattel Toy company, posing with collection of Barbie dolls, 1961. Photo © Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection, UCLA / Licence CC-BY 4.0

Barbie changed the way little American girls looked at the world forever. Up until 1959, dolls were primarily in the form of babies or little girls. The premise being; dolls were toys which would promote and nurture the basic maternal habits a girl would need once she became a woman. Motherhood was the doll playing endgame, but with the introduction of the Barbie Doll, little girls began to dream beyond Motherhood and could focus on hairstyles, dresses, fashion accessories and ultimately, careers involving adventure and bravado, rather than feeding baby and walking around with a stroller for the rest of their days.

Children’s Barbie doll. Hot Rockin’ Fun Barbie & Rockers range, 26th March 1988. (Photo by Dinello/The People/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

 And if a movie which has grossed almost two billion dollars worldwide, winning several dozen awards in the process, as well as being nominated for several Oscars wasn’t enough, Mattel estimates that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold since 1959.

So, with this many dolls in the mix, it’s important to narrow down the best vintage collectible models and understand what one needs to look for when buying or selling a Barbie doll.

The first 350,000 Barbie dolls were all made in Japan, in addition to all the accessories and hand stitched outfits. Afterwards production moved to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Then in 1972, production moved again to China, Malaysia, and finally Mexico. In fact, Barbie, the iconic American doll, has never been “made in the USA”.

What to look for when buying or selling you Barbie Dolls?

Dirty and damaged Barbie Doll. Photo by Carlos Adampol Galindo from DF, México / Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Condition is extremely important when putting a value on your doll. This means the doll should have; smooth hair, clean “skin”, all painted details intact, clothing should be in good condition, with all accessories included and unbroken. If you’re lucky enough to have the original box, this too adds tremendous value. If the doll has been “played with”, or is in relatively rough condition, it will be worth considerably less than a mint condition doll.

SOULTZ-HAUT-RHIN, FRANCE – MARCH 07: The first Barbie doll created in 1959 is displayed during an exhibition dedicated to the Barbie doll at “la Nef des jouets ” on March 7, 2019 in Soultz, France. On this occasion Tina Brettnacher, a Barbie doll collector presents some of her rarest and oldest barbie dolls of her collection. Barbie, the most popular model doll in the world celebrates her 60th birthday. On March 9, 1959, Ruth Handler, an American businesswoman marketed the first “model doll,” named Barbie in tribute to her daughter Barbara who used paper dolls to create her own role-playing games. She has been president of toy manufacturer Mattel Inc which has been selling the Barbie doll since its inception. The exhibition will take place from March 9 to June 30, 2019. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

The first production run of Barbie dolls made in Japan have two stamps on the body, the first is “Barbie” stamped on the hip and the second is “made in Japan” stamp on the bottom of the foot.

If you’ve got one of these Barbie dolls, in mint condition, she can sell for as much as $25,000 USD, with rougher, played with dolls from the same production run selling for as little as $1,500 USD.

Barbie’s first clothing designer Charlotte Johnson posing with 1965 Barbie doll model, 13 May 1964. Photo © Nelson Tiffany, Los Angeles Times / Licence CC BY 4.0

 Top 5 Vintage Barbie Dolls to look for

#1 Ponytail Barbie

The first Barbie doll with her short bangs, stylish, striped swimsuit, ponytail, sunglasses and chic sandals is instantly recognizable by her sophisticated attire. Typically the price for a good condition doll starts around $2500 USD and a few have sold for over $25,000 USD with original box and in “never played with” condition.

#2 Twist n’ Turn Barbie

This was the first doll to introduce movement and the doll could be posed and placed in various postures. The rarest model is the redhead doll, as her hair was made from the remnants of the other dolls produced and there were very few made. Early TNT Barbies are selling on various platforms for between $40 USD and $1500 USD, depending on condition and rarity.

#3 Ken

Ken, full name, Kenneth Sean “Ken” Carson Jr. was created in 1961 as a counterpart to Barbie, who as a smart and single woman, had a boyfriend rather than a husband…The original Ken doll came with a red swimsuit and several fashion accessories to keep pace with his girlfriend Barbie. There are several Ken dolls listed on eBay for prices ranging from $18 USD up to as much as $5500 USD for a mint condition doll.

A 1961 Original Ken doll wears a bathing suit and a towel in this studio portrait. On March 13, 2001, Mattel toy company celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Ken doll which was originally introduced March 13, 1961 at the American International Toy Fair. Originating with his crew cut look and evolving through the funky disco styles of the ”70s and ”80s, to the trendy styles of the ”90s, Ken has been a worldwide pop culture favorite for every era and for several generations. (Photo courtesy of Mattel/Newsmakers)

#4 Francie

Francie Fairchild was made from 1966-1976, and was billed as “Barbies MODern cousin”, this model has a number of variations, including what Mattel termed at the time a “colored Francie”, again making the Barbie doll a cultural game changer by creating a toy outside the parameters of convention, where, up until this point in time, all dolls were of Caucasian race…Vintage Francie dolls are selling for prices ranging from a few hundred up to as much as $4000 USD.

#5 Color Magic Barbie #1150

These Barbies came out in 1966-1967 with hair color that could be changed by just adding water. The dark haired dolls would transform into redheads, and the blondes into brunettes. They also came with brightly colored clothes and heavy make up. Again, Barbie was mirroring our 60’s cultural movements. These dolls are bringing prices from $600 USD up,to as much as $2500 USD on Etsy.

Original Mattel Barbie Color Magic. A Barbie with the same body as “American Girl” but with a new hairstyle that can change color, blonde version. Photo © Bukowskis

Collecting Barbies has never been more popular, and with over a billion dolls produced to date, there certainly is something for everyone.

Most Barbie dolls are selling on eBay and Etsy, as well as specialty platforms exclusively for doll collectors.

Occasionally, one can find Barbie dolls selling at top tier auction houses such as Christie’s or Sothebys, but most often they can be found at yard sales or at your local antique mall.

Happy hunting, and good luck finding the next Barbie for your collection.

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