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Three dolls wearing bathing suits line up next to their original boxes.
Midge, at left, and two versions of her best friend Barbie. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Barbara Millicent Roberts is at the Library — But Just Call Her Barbie

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Barbara Millicent Roberts debuted in 1959, when Elvis reigned supreme and Berry Gordy had just founded what would become Motown. “The Twilight Zone” dazzled television viewers. It was long ago and far away.

Sixty-four years down the road, Barbie is bigger than ever and hasn’t aged a day. Her latest film adventure, “Barbie,” hits theaters today, turning the world pink for just a little while, but it seems certain she’ll still be a pop-culture icon long after this escapade fades into the rear view.

Since she’s a veteran pop-culture staple, Barbie has a dream home in the nation’s library. The Barbies in the Geppi Collection, above, are held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. They appear to come from the early 1960s, when the bubble cut was all the rage. That’s the original, 1959 style of bathing suit on the far right, but Barbie’s hair has already shifted from the original pulled-back look. Fans will recognize the early version of Midge, her best friend, on the left. Ken, who debuted in 1961, skipped our photo shoot.

Accessories for the Ken doll, laid out against a black backdrop, some still in the original packaging.
Ken accessories from the early 1960s. Rare Book and Special Collections. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Their adventures would grow to include several pop-culture formats, notably including the comic book.

All these came to the Library in 2018, courtesy of collector and entrepreneur Stephen A. Geppi as part of his landmark 3,000 item collection of comic books, photos, original art, newspapers, buttons, pins and badges, all documenting pop culture. (It included the original storyboards that show the creation of Mickey Mouse.)

Barbie was the creation of Ruth Handler who, along with her husband Elliot, headed up the toy company Mattel. Ruth Handler had seen a racy 1950s German newspaper cartoon, Lilli, which was turned into a doll that was marketed as a gag gift for men. But Ruth saw a market for grown-up dolls intended for girls who could play-act with them, dress and change their looks. They were not asked to be a mother to Barbie, but a best friend.

They sold 300,000 Barbies the first year and have gone to sell more than a billion. It’s a story about a doll who grew up to tell America something about itself.

A colorful selection of Barbie magazines from over the years.
A colorful selection of Barbie magazines from over the years. Serial and Government Publications Division. Photo: Shawn Miller.
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Comments (6)

  1. Thanks for the informative narrative on the history of these dolls!

  2. Has this collection ever been displayed? Are there plans for a pop culture/Barbie exhibit?

    • Yes! The reference librarians in the Newspaper and Current Periodicals Reading Room have put together a mini-exhibit, which is on display. Barbie items have also been featured in other exhibits over the years, including by the copyright division.

  3. Have been a Barbie collector for about 30 years (am 75now). Got into it with my granddaughter! Trying to wean myself out of it since granddaughter no longer interested, but love reading history and still grabbing a doll or outfit when I see a good deal!

  4. I would like to arrange for two people to see the original Barbie and Ken dolls at 11:30am on Wednesday 4OCT. The time is flexible, date not so much. Thanks for your reply.

    • Hi Carol,

      I don’t believe the dolls in the Geppi collection are the original Barbie & Ken dolls (the story points out the pictured ones are from the early 1960s, not the debut year of 1959), but please check with the Rare Book & Special Collections staff. They can also make an appointment for you. Reach them online at this link: https://ask.loc.gov/rare-books-special-collections

      Good luck!
      -Neely

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