If it weren't for a comic strip about a confident, blond secretary published in a German newspaper in the 1950s, Barbie wouldn't be filling the shelves of toy stores around the world today.
For years, Ruth Handler — one of the cofounders of toy giant Mattel — had struggled to convince her colleagues of the market for a fashionable adult doll.
As a child in the early 1950s, her daughter Barbara had played with some of the many paper dolls on the market, but their one-dimensional nature limited children's play, Handler wrote in her 1994 autobiography "Dream Doll."
"Oh, sure, there were so-called fashion dolls ... But these dolls had flat chests, big bellies, and squatty legs – they were built like overweight six- or eight-year-olds," Handler wrote. She wanted a doll for girls who were too old for baby dolls and that could inspire Barbara like the toys that allowed her son to imagine himself as a firefighter or astronaut.
But Mattel's team said it wasn't profitable.
"Everybody would kind of turn me off," Handler wrote in her autobiography. "So I stopped mentioning it."
But Handler's imagination was sparked on a family trip around Europe in summer 1956. Walking past a toy shop in Lucerne in the Swiss Alps, both Handler and her daughter were "absolutely transfixed" by the sight of a doll they saw in the window – known as Bild Lilli. "Barbara and I lingered outside that shop for the longest time," Handler wrote.
Bild Lilli had first appeared in comic strips in German tabloid paper Bild Zeitung, debuting in the Axel Springer publication's first-ever issue in 1952. Lilli, a secretary created by cartoonist Reinhard Beuthein, was confident, witty, and flirty.
"Lilli pursued rich men by striking provocative poses in revealing clothes and spouting comic-strip bubbles of suggestive dialogue," Robin Gerber wrote in "Barbie and Ruth," her 2000 biography of Handler. "She was naive and clever at the same time."
The newspaper began making Lilli dolls in 1955 because of the comic's popularity and to market the newspaper. The doll had a heart-shaped face, a glued-on high blonde ponytail, a sharp red pout, and eyes that glanced sideways, complete with blue shadow and winged liner. Her nails were red and her earrings were painted-on.
Lilli came in two sizes – 7.5 and 11.4 inches – and was marketed to adults, who generally purchased her as a joke present. "Lilli dolls could be bought in tobacco shops, bars, and adult-themed toy shops," Gerber wrote. "Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as suggestive keepsakes."
But over time, the doll also became popular with children and was accompanied by a full suite of accessories, including houses and furniture. Her outfits included office wear, tennis gear, and a traditional German Dirndl dress, though they couldn't be bought separately from the doll. A live-action film about Lilli was even released in 1958.
"The 'Lilli' doll was the embodiment of an idea I'd pitched to Elliot and our other Mattel toy designers some five years earlier," Handler wrote. She said that while Lilli's face was "too hard-looking and cartoonish," her body "was another story."
"Here were the breasts, the small waist, the long, tapered legs I had enthusiastically described for the designers all those years ago," Handler wrote.
When Handler returned to Los Angeles later that summer, she showed Lilli to Mattel's team and finally managed to convince her colleagues of the market for such a doll. The toy company ultimately made a manufacturing arrangement with a Japanese company, where production was cheaper.
Handler tweaked Lilli's look. Her curved eyebrows were swapped for dramatic arches and her lips were softened. Handler also gave Barbie tiny individual toes, unlike Lilli, whose legs simply transitioned into her shoes. Lilli's hard plastic was switched for a softer material, Barbie's hair was rooted, and she was made less "curvaceous," Handler wrote.
But Barbie still had Lilli's high blonde ponytail, delicate nose, and winged eyes. "In the end, Lilli and her new sister were barely distinguishable except to the new doll's creator," Gerber wrote.
"The secret truth that Mattel hoped to conceal was that Barbie was merely a metamorphosis of the German doll Lilli," Orly Lobel wrote in her 2017 book "You Don't Own Me: The Court Battles That Exposed Barbie's Dark Side." The company didn't stop to think about whether copying Lilli was legal, Lobel wrote.
"When it designed and launched Barbie in 1959, Mattel neither offered G&H royalties nor sought permission to use its design," Lobel wrote.
But Lilli's makers, for one, noticed the similarities between the dolls. In 1960, Greiner & Hausser, the successor to the doll's original manufacturer, filed a US patent for the "doll hip joint" used in Lilli and exclusively licensed the rights to Louis Marx, a New York-based toy manufacturer, for 10 years. The next year, Greiner & Hausser and Marx sued Mattel, alleging it had infringed the copyright and had "only very slightly" modified Lilli to make Barbie, Lobel wrote.
Mattel denied that Barbie was a Lilli copycat, and the suit was ultimately settled, per Gerber.
In 1964, Mattel bought Greiner & Hausser's Bild-Lilli copyrights and patent rights and took the doll out of production. By then, around 130,000 dolls had been manufactured.
That wasn't the end of the legal battle between Mattel and Greiner & Hausser. In the early 2000s, the long-bankrupt Greiner & Hausser was revived to file a lawsuit accusing Mattel of fraud related to the 1964 agreements. The company alleged that it had been induced to accept a flat fee for the licenses based on Mattel's misrepresentations about how many Barbie dolls it was selling and that it would have insisted on a per-doll royalty had it known the actual sales volume, per Lobel.
As relief, Greiner & Hausser wanted the copyright and patent rights rescinded sought damages based on an appropriate royalty for every Barbie doll sold by Mattel since 1964. The court dismissed the lawsuit, per Lobel.2023-06-03T09:31:32Z dg43tfdfdgfd