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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 501

Papers of Ruth Handler, 1931-2002


Business and personal papers of Ruth Handler, founder of Mattel, Inc., and creator of Barbie


  • Creation: 1931-2002

Language of Materials

Materials in English.


Access. Collection is open for research. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


14.6 linear feet ((35 file boxes) plus 2 folio folders, 2 folio+ folders, 1 oversize folder, 29 photograph folders, 1 folio photograph folder, 54 videotapes, 5 audiotapes)

Series I, Biographical and personal (#1.1-7.7), is divided into three subseries.

Subseries A, Miscellaneous biographical (#1.1-3.17), includes resumes, autobiographical notes, personal clippings, 1937-2001, fan mail (#2.3-2.13), routine correspondence, medical, financial, property, and miscellaneous legal files.

Subseries B, Awards, appearances, and charitable giving (#4.1-5.22), documents the Handlers' philanthropy, and their honors and awards.

Subseries C, Non-profit activity (#6.1-7.7), documents Ruth Handler's public service on the Advisory Committee on the Economic Role of Women, 1973-1974, the American Cancer Society, California Division, 1972-1978, and the U.S. National Business Council for Consumer Affairs, 1971-1973. Also included are papers re: the UCLA Business Executive Program which she completed in 1957, and her teaching on Consumerism and Managing Small Business, at UCLA School of Management, 1974-1975.

Series II, Family correspondence (#8.1-10.19), is divided into four subseries.

Subseries A, Elliot and Ruth Handler their children, and grandchildren (#8.1-8.16).

Subseries B, Mosko family (#9.1-10.9), includes photocopies of some of Ruth Handler's letters and illustrates her central role in her extended family.

Subseries C, Handler relatives (#10.10-10.13), includes Elliot Handler's brothers and their children.

Subseries D, Other relatives (#10.14-10.19), mostly from abroad.

Series III, Early business, 1940-1947 (#7.8-7.17, 11.1-12.7), includes financial records, correspondence, photographs of the Handlers' first companies: Elliot Handler Plastics manufacturers of lucite and plexiglass giftware, and Elzac, makers of costume jewelry.

Series IV, Mattel, Inc. (#12.8-29.2), is divided into five subseries.

Subseries A, Ruth Handler's files (#12.8-19.26), contains notes on Mattel's history, and business correspondence re: manufacture of the first Barbie in Japan, 1959 (#12.16); the Shindana Toy Co., an African American toy company financed by Mattel in the Watts area of Los Angeles (#13.2); and the history of Mattel's business acquisitions (#13.1, 13.3, 13.5-13.6). Also included are Board of Director's minutes and agendas (#13.7-14.5) and Ruth Handler's calendars (#14.8-14.12). There are internal newsletters: Mattel's Organization Bulletin (1967-1975), Women at Mattel (1975), Mattel Alumni Association (1990-1995); and speeches by Ruth and Elliot Handler (#16.11-18.8) at toy fairs, annual meetings, and professional groups discussing safety in the toy industry, consumerism,, and the history of the company. Travel files (#18.11-19.26) include the receipt (1956) for the Lilli doll in Germany, the model for Barbie (#18.12).

Subseries B, Barbie (#20.1-21.9), consists of photographs of Barbie's 35th anniversary, 1994; interviews with Ruth Handler; clippings, 1959-2001, and books about Barbie; and correspondence and clippings about Chatty Cathy, Mattel's first talking doll.

Subseries C, Mattel Alumni Association Foundation scrapbooks, (#21.10-23.11), contains photocopies of original scrapbooks, and photographs, letters, memos, and clippings removed from scrapbooks and placed in folders in original order, 1940s-1969. Aalso included are loose clippings about Mattel, 1951-2001.

Subseries D, Lawsuits (#23.12-27.9), includes legal documents relating to class action suits against Mattel, 1970-1975; the SEC investigation of Mattel and report of its Special Counsel Seth Hufstedler, 1975 (#25.10v.); Mattel's failed legal challenge to the authority of Special Counsel, 1977, and the trial of Ruth Handler and four colleagues (1978) for conspiracy to violate federal securities, mail, and banking laws. Ruth Handler's nolo contendere plea (#26.7) and clippings about the case are included (#27.1-27.2); also materials re: Foundation for People (#27.3-27.9), a program for first offenders established by Ruth Handler as part of her sentence.

Subseries E, Financial records (#27.10-29.2), consists of Mattel Inc., financial statements, balance sheets, and other records, 1943-1955.

Series V, Nearly Me (#30.1-32.12), consists of research, development, and marketing of Nearly Me breast prostheses, and includes photographs of products, promotional ads, responses from clients (#31.11-31.12), business correspondence, and legal documents, 1977-1996.

Series VI, Dream Doll (#32.13-35.12), includes audiotapes and transcripts of oral histories with Ruth Handler, correspondence with ghost writers and agents, Ruth Handler's notes on her career and business philosophy; and arrangements for book tours. For fan mail see #2.3-2.13. Also included are correspondence and a draft movie script by Rama Laurie Stagner (#35.11).

Series VII, Photographs (#PD.1-#PD.30), includes professional and personal photographs of Ruth and Elliot Handler and their extended family; Mattel publicity, products, factories, and workers; Barbie anniversaries and collectors; and Nearly Me promotion. Photograph folders listed in earlier series are also listed in photograph series.

Videotape list available at repository.


Businesswoman Ruth Handler (1916-2002), creator of Barbie, was the youngest of ten children born to Polish immigrants who settled in Denver, Colorado. She moved to Los Angeles, California, and married childhood sweetheart Elliot Handler in 1938. While he studied industrial design, they formed Elliot Handler Plastics, and between 1939 and 1942 Elliot designed and manufactured novelty goods made of the new material lucite, and Ruth managed the business and sales. Their second venture, Elzac, 1942-1944, manufactured costume jewelry.

With their friend Harold (Matt) Matson they formed Mattel, Inc., which was incorporated in 1945. At first they sold doll furniture, and later branched out into musical toys. Capital loaned by family members in 1947 and 1949 helped expand the company which remained a Handler-owned and operated concern until 1963 when shares were first traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Manufacture was sub-contracted and the Mattel plant in Hawthorne, California, was used for assembly alone. In the 1950s, the company hired mostly women, of all races and nationalities and in the 1960s pioneered safety measures that became industry standards.

As executive vice-president in charge of sales and management, Ruth Handler took a gamble in 1955 and bought $500,000 worth of network advertising on the Walt Disney television program, "The Mickey Mouse Club." This led to sustained, year-round advertising direct to children and caused spectacular growth. New toy lines, including burp guns, western pistols, and model Winchester rifles, raised sales from $5 million to $14 million in three years. The company's slogan: "If it's Mattel, it's swell" was ubiquitous. The Barbie doll, created in 1959 by Ruth Handler and named after her daughter Barbara, and the Ken doll which followed in 1961 named for son Kenneth, soon accounted for a substantial proportion of the company's revenues. A talking doll, Chatty Cathy, and Hot Wheels (introduced in 1968) cemented Mattel's position as the dominant toy company in the world with over $100 million in sales.

During the mid-1960s the company adopted a new policy of acquiring non-toy companies in order to lessen dependence on the fluctuations of the toy market. Seymour Rosenberg was appointed Vice President of Finance, and a decentralized management of independent divisions was created that weakened the Handlers' oversight and control. Ruth Handler, now president of the company which had grown to include plants in Asia, Europe, Canada, and Mexico, was increasingly involved in national business organizations, serving on the Advisory Committee on the Economic Role of Women, 1973-1974, the American Cancer Society, California Division, 1972-1978, and the U.S. National Business Council for Consumer Affairs, 1971-1973. In 1970, Handler was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. A combination of these factors, as well as poor accounting practices, unwise product decisions, and a fire in their Mexican plant, led the company to post their first loss of $30 million in 1972. A bullish earnings report for the first quarter of 1973 was followed by another loss of $32 million later in the year.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began an investigation in June 1973 charging Mattel with issuing false reports, overstating earnings, and understating expenses. A new COO and president, Arthur Spear, was appointed. By a consent decree (September. 1974) Mattel agreed to add independent directors and to appoint a special counsel and new auditors to investigate the company's financial practices. The report, issued in 1975 by Special Counsel Seth Hufstedler, singled out as personally responsible Ruth and Elliot Handler and Seymour Rosenberg, who had been fired in 1972. The report recommended that the company file suit against their accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, which had overlooked accounting irregularities. It found no evidence of insider trading, but declared that Mattel, in an effort to maintain the appearance of corporate growth, had given new meaning to the term "mismanagement."

The Handlers both resigned from the company in 1975. Meanwhile Mattel sued Arthur Andersen and in April 1977 settled out of court. Class action suits by shareholders were consolidated and settled out of court with the establishment of a $30 million fund to which the Handlers contributed two million shares in 1976. Then in 1978, Ruth Handler and four others were indicted for conspiracy, mail fraud, and filing false statements and reports. Ruth Handler pleaded not guilty but changed her plea to "nolo contendere," saying: "I believe that I am innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. But I decided with my attorney's concurrence to plead 'nolo.'" Handler and Rosenberg were sentenced to 500 hours of community service for five years and to pay fines. During her probation Handler was instrumental in creating the Foundation for People (an acronym for Program for Ex-Offenders on Probation for Learning Experience) to provide white collar probationers with opportunities to do useful public service.

Meanwhile, unable to find a well-fitting breast prosthesis after her mastectomy, Ruth Handler had gone into business in 1976 with Gerald Peyton, founding Ruthton Co., which manufactured silicon breast prostheses called Nearly Me. Handler managed the company, appeared frequently in the media and visited department stores where she personally fitted breast prostheses. In 1991 she sold the company.

Although neither of the Handlers had any formal business training, Ruth Handler completed a Business Executive course at the University of Caliifornia at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1957 and was invited to teach a course on Consumerism at the UCLA School of Management in 1974 and on Managing Small Business in 1975.

Both Handlers were frequently honored for their business achievement. Ruth Handler was singled out as as Outstanding Business Woman by the National Association of Accountants (1961), Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times (1968), and one of seventy-five Outstanding Women in America by the Ladies' Home Journal (1971). Ruth and Elliot Handler were inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame (1988) and Ruth was the first to be named Woman of Distinction by the United Jewish Association (1992). Her fame as the "mother" of Barbie continued to grow, especially after the publication of her autobiography, Dream Doll, in 1994. In 1994 and 1999 she was once more associated with Mattel, Inc., in celebrating the 35th and 40th anniversaries of Barbie.

Ruth Handler died in Los Angeles, California, on April 27, 2002.


The collection is arranged in seven series:

  1. I. Biographical and Personal
  2. II. Family Correspondence
  3. III. Early Business
  4. IV. Mattel, Inc.
  5. V. Nearly Me
  6. VI. Dream Doll
  7. VII. Photographs

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 2002-M158, 2003-M3

These papers were given to the Schlesinger Library by Elliot Handler in October 2002 and January 2003.

Processing Information

Processed: March 2004

By: Jane Knowles and Abigail Blachly

Handler, Ruth. Papers of Ruth Handler, 1931-2002: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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