A major business anniversary is about to occur, one with significant local connections.
Nearly 50 years ago, Barbie leapt onto the nation’s toy market. Our social structures and fashion values haven’t been the same since.
Just talk to Margaret Voelker-Ferrier, an associate professor at U.C.'s College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning. She hauls just some of her 500 collected Barbie dolls – and her assembled 1,000, count ‘em, 1,000 doll outfits - into the classroom every semester to show off how fashion sense has changed over the decades. “Obviously, it’s a gimmick,” the dress-meister concedes.
It was early March in 1959 when Ruth Handler, the co-founder of Mattel Inc., unveiled her creation at the New York Toy Fair (named after her own daughter, Barbara). The first “Barbie” flopped, big-time, at the fair, but Handler — not to be swayed — took her toy doll directly to consumers via advertising. So a polyurethane legend was born.
Somewhere in the world right now, two Barbies are bought every second. The average American girl owns eight of them in her lifetime.
Barbie was independent (sorry, Ken), a career executive much like her creator: Over the past half-century, Barbie has “worked” as a rock star, paleontologist, teacher, nurse, doctor, veterinarian, Naval officer, even World Cup soccer player, Olympic swimmer and presidential candidate. “Barbie served as a forecaster of the expanding options for women,” observes Voelker-Ferrier of what is now a $1.5-billion-per-year industry.
Yes, Barbie got roundly criticized for her buxom measurements, make-up, hairstyles and outlandish accoutrements – all those dream houses, dream cars, dream yachts — all foisting unrealistic body images and expectations upon young and impressionable girls. Her fashion sense included the best of Givenchy, Versace, Dolce & Gabana, Vera Wang and Gucci. Expensive tastes.
Her marital status, or lack of it, was an issue at times, as well. Sure, blame the country’s soaring divorce rate on this poor princess, too.
When Barbie dumped longtime boyfriend Ken for a new boy toy, “Blaine,” in 2004, even loyal fans were mystified.
“They could have easily introduced him as a new friend without breaking up Barbie and Ken,” chimed up Margie Schultz, the  chief historian for the Queen City Barbie Doll Club and columnist for the national Barbie Bazaar magazine.
The Blaine incident was a minor plastic hiccup in the damsel’s billion-dollar dynasty, and today, the Queen City Barbie Doll Club has rebounded from the tragedy, boasting members from ages 30 to 70, says Schultz.
There’s even a live-action Barbie. “Growing up, I loved Barbie,” says  Cincinnati actress Erin Elizabeth Coors, who’s been cast in the lead role of the stage production “Barbie: Live in Fairytopia.” The touring theatrical spectacular is slated to visit 80 cities in North America.
Voelker-Ferrier, meanwhile, is hard at work on a book chronicling popular fashion as represented by this American icon, even as Barbies from that first year of production routinely fetch up to $10,000 (if they’re in mint condition, ‘natch).
And Procter & Gamble, no less, has jumped on the Barbie bandwagon, partnering with Mattel to produce Barbie-branded oral health care products and toothbrushes.
While some of us might have been more partial to G.I. Joe in our childhood, there’s no doubt Barbie has left her indelible imprint on the country’s social fabric. That fabric, of course, being pink taffeta.