Site Owner's Note: Hi to All Barbie Fans and Collectors--Since Ellen has joined my website, and posted some fabulous Blogs, I have decided to make a page just for her blogs. She is a wonderful writer with amazing credentials, and writes such cool and humorous pieces on Barbie, I moved her blogs from the regular "blogs" page to this one! Enjoy!
Ellen Taylor, a passionate collector of vintage dolls, previously wrote ?The Vintage Vantage?, about the earliest Barbie dolls for Miller?s Magazine. She currently maintains a blog called ?Of Bonds and Blondes?, comparing the similar dynamics at play that govern prices in both the secondary Barbie doll and bond markets, inspired by a 30-year career on Wall Street. Ellen continues to indulge her love for the earliest Barbies as both buyer and seller of vintage dolls on eBay and at tri-state doll shows in the New York City area. She has also given talks on?Barbie: The History and the Hysteria? at libraries in eastern Connecticut and appeared on local television in December to discuss how Barbie rocked the international doll world after her launch at the New York Toy Fair in 1959. Ellen estimates her Barbie collection at about 150 dolls, with her favorite issues being the #3 Ponytails (brown eyeliner), the Lemon Yellow Color Magics with high color, and the Long Hair High Color American Girls.
Why is Skipper Streaking?
So I thought I had reckoned with the reality that a green ear malady can affect some vintage Barbies. I’d been collecting the earliest Barbies for, oh, maybe ten years when I did, seeing how the “dreaded” green stain afflicted certain early dolls – some bubble cuts, the swirl ponytails, the #4 and #5 ponytails. Not so much the #3 and hardly ever even a dot of green on the #1s and 2s because their heads were made of harder, and presumedly less porous vinyl. Of course, never on the American Girls because they didn’t have earring holes. (Don’t you love it when you see an AG listed on eBay and the seller proclaims, “No green ear!” No kidding! No earrings ever, the single cause of green ear.)
I’d seen how a seller would list a doll and, almost as an afterthought, say, “oh, there is a bit of green around the ear. I haven’t tried to fix it because I am not a Barbie expert, but I have heard you can.” Like, the green is no big deal. In my opinion, next to an unwanted haircut on a vintage doll, there is nothing that devalues a doll more than green staining around the earring hole. They say there are products that will remove green and I’ve tried some of them. Admittedly, I am not a patient person and when I buy a doll, I want to dress them and put them on display. Now. I don’t like to sit around and reapply CLR or the creamy ointment from that company in Maine, again and again over the course of a month. Even dolls that have been “successfully” treated? Well, in time a faint shadow of green will reappear at the treated area, at least in my experience. You may lighten the green, but I don’t think you ever eradicate it once it takes hold.
So I learned to accept green as a fact of life on certain vintage dolls – not all of them, but on many of the, say, swirls. And if I am on the hunt for a near mint redhead swirl with those gorgeous dark coral lips, I’ll buy the doll anyway, and live with the green because the rest of the doll is so fabulous. Often the doll is still in her original box, and if you think about that, it makes sense that the “new” dolls (I put “new” in quotation marks because you really cannot call a 60-year old doll “new”; a better adjective would be “unplayed with”) would be the ones that are more apt to become stricken with green. That’s because the owner would leave the doll untouched, with the original earrings in the doll’s ears, since that seems to keep the doll in a more “near mint-in-box” state. Uh no! When I get a doll like that, you know, with that awful green goo oozing out at the base of the earring, I yank the earring out and immediately douse the area with rubbing alcohol. If it’s a bubble cut, I usually gently remove the doll’s head and drench a cotton swab with the alcohol and rub the inside of the head near the earring hole to remove residual green that is inside the head and, if left undisturbed, will proceed to continue its dirty deed around the earring hole from inside. Sometimes, the alcohol will remove some of the surface green but we all know once that stuff seeps into the softer head vinyl, it is usually there to stay.
The thing about green ear on a vintage Barbie is that it is almost always visible on the doll’s ear. The layered bob on a bubble is short so the bottom of the ear is typically exposed; likewise on a ponytail, the hair above and behind the ear is pulled back so that the ear lobe is also visible. So there’s no way to hide the green, or to miss it on a vintage Barbie. Even a near mint doll in her box cannot hide her greening ears, if the disease is there. And so usually a seller will “reveal” the affiction in the listing. And that is fine; either you buy the stained doll and live with it or buy it and gradually work with the different remedies in an attempt to lighten or remove the stain over the coming months.
But not so with Skipper. Recently I have begun to collect “new”-in-box or near-mint-in-box Skippers. It’s amazing how many are out there at far lower prices than you’d pay for NMIB Barbies. Previously, I had owned just three Skippers – one platinum blonde, one Color Magic brown/red, and one titian -- that I displayed or kept in a box in their three vintage outfits I had chosen. But then I saw some pictures posted on the vintage Barbie page on Facebook and was smitten with all the different two-toned hair colors, as well as raven black and copper red shades, you could find on vintage Skippers. So, then I began to collect more Skippers. (Well, you know how it is with Barbies; one is never enough.) In my case, three dolls expanded to twelve, to then to fifteen. And it was then that I discovered that, even if a doll doesn’t have earrings, like Skipper, it can still have green. Because Skipper was sold with a metallic hair band. And over the years, if left on her head, a terrible case of green streaking occurs in the hair as well as thick spots of green accumulate on her scalp, under the hair, near the location of the hair band. Darn metal! None of this is visible on a near mint, or even NRFB Skipper, since the long hair is covered by a cello sleeve that is tightly bound by some glue or tape around her neck. You can barely see the hair, much less the head band, when the doll is in box. The bangs are totally flat on a new Skipper and her lovely hair, held back by the band, falls in a mild wave onto her back. Look closer, though, and you might think that Skipper has been to the hair salon to get green accents for St. Patrick’s Day !
The good news is that much of the green on an afflicted Skipper is hidden. You need to separate the strands of hair to locate the green splotches on the ear or scalp itself, unlike Barbie where it will have stained her exposed ear lobe, and back of ear, and even down around her neck. And, if it is visible on the long strands of hair itself, it can be treated more easily than green ear on a Barbie. You have to remove the cello head covering from an unplayed with doll to be able to take off the head band, and then you can douse a cotton swab with rubbing alcohol and gently stroke the green hair strands. It is far easier to subdue or even remove the green streaks in Skipper’s hair than when the malady has taken permanent residence on a vintage Barbie’s vinyl ear. But the downside is, in order to treat Skipper’s green, you will have to relinquish the Skipper’s “new”-in-box status once you remove the head cello and headband to treat the green. And it is admittedly thrilling to fix your eyes upon a “new”, unplayed with Skipper’s face with those stunning and perfect rosy/coral lips and taupe eye shadow and lovely flat bangs upon opening her box. But if you leave her “new-in-box”, the green will, of course, only get worse. Of course, that’s your choice. I have a “new” Skipper who has green streaks from her scalp all the way down to the ends of her hair and a block of green embedded into her scalp just above her ear as well as a tiny green dot on her ear lobe. Like Yellow Color Magic Barbies, that have hair that can be turned nearly to a fluorescent orange red with the swipe of some baking soda in water, perhaps a daffodil yellow-to-spring green hair color can become the newest rage among lovers of Skippers!
Why Do We Collect What We Collect?
As collectors of vintage Barbies, we are well aware there are many different types of dolls and ensembles on which to focus our collection. Just think about it: Six types of ponytail dolls, from 1959 to 1966 – I don’t believe there was another issue after Ponytail #6, with the smaller lips and more triangular face - as well as “swirl” ponytails in five different hair shades. Bubble cuts with red, pink, and coral lip color with either tight or full bouffant hair styling. American Girls with the shorter page boy that hit the toy shelves first in 1965, closely followed by both low and high color “longer-haired” chin-length ‘dos with the continuous row of rooting in the back of the doll’s head. Side Part Bubbles (straight or bend legs) and Side Part American Girls (pink or tan skin). Also, Color Magics with bright yellow and paler lemon yellow hair; the rarest midnight version; ruby red hair; the prototype platinum beauty; all with either raspberry or buttercream lips. Then onto the mod era with the Twist n’ Turn, TNT Flip, Standard, and Talking Barbie, Francie, Julia, Jamie, Stacey, Casey, and PJ – who have I forgotten? Four different hair colors for the TNTs alone with oh-so-“Beach Blanket Bingo” names: Sun Kissed, Summer Sand, Go Go Co Co, and Chocolate Bon Bon. Then oxidations of the original factory hues so that you can now find Platinum and Titian TNTs as well. There are also the rare European and Japanese versions of these issues, with bend legs or pink skin. On and on and on.
My point is that we collectors have all developed our own preferences as to which particular issue we love the most. As a result, it’s unlikely you will often get outbid by your Best Barbie Friend on a certain doll for sale because you might have fallen in love with one issue while they have focused his or her bidding on an entirely different vintage doll. For instance, you might have as your objective owning every early TM-labeled 900 Series outfit while your friend has as their focus finding the ultra-rare alternative versions of the vintage outfits sold only in Japan. Some collectors are enthralled with plunking down big bucks for a variation of an 800 or 1600 ensemble, merely because they are so hard to find, like the Junior Prom gown with the multicolored silk floral embellishment at the waist rather than the mass-produced red gown with three identical woven flowers in front. For those collectors, it’s the “hunt” that is exciting (for me it’s my dream of finding a dusty #1 ponytail, even with mussy hair at the bottom of a paper bag at a tag sale, under a pile of 1970s Superstar Barbies on top!) Some desire the Japanese Midges because, frankly, their faces are cuter than their American counterparts; others scan mod listings to find a TNT with the rare blue eyeliner. Some people only collect vintage Barbies because they have become (in some cases) museum- quality antiques and are accordingly very hard to find; some don’t even particularly care about the dolls, they just feel they can make a fortune out of selling them.
What type of a collector are you? Why do you buy what you buy?
With respect to me, I just love the vintage dolls. LOVE the dolls. I can’t imagine dropping thousands of dollars to amass a vintage collection you only plan to dump later on. These dolls are so beautifully crafted with such a sophisticated countenance that I cannot understand why anyone would not have their breath taken away when they are first confronted with a #1, #2, or #3 ponytail, or a pink- skinned Side Part American Girl. When I was a child, I owned a #4 Blonde Ponytail, a Titian first-issue Bubble and a Flocked-hair Ken. I probably was just happy to get any Barbies back then. But what draws each of us as collectors to a certain type of vintage doll? Being NRFB? Or MIB? Its rarity? Or a personal preference for a certain issue? I have been accused by my collector friends of trying to “corner” the market on White Ginger bubbles, for instance. ( I plead: Guilty! ) Or a desire to amass all the earliest outfits that were tagged “TM” in the early days before Mattel was able to trademark its 900 line of ensembles? A variation of one of the “newer” 900s or 1600s? Or all of the above? Such is the enchantment of collecting; you can have it all, as long as you can still pay your mortgage and grocery bill!
I do not collect mod Barbies as a category although I do have about eight TNTs because I love their long eyelashes and darling 60s faces; finally Barbie did look like a teenage fashion doll. And I like the brunette Hair Fairs, especially with longer hair and good lashes. But, in general, I don’t care for most mod issues like TNT Flip, Standard, Francie, or Talking Barbies. Why not? In one word: their quality. In 1967 Mattel shifted its production from Japan to the less expensive Southeast Asian labor markets and the quality of both the dolls and outfits suffered as a result. Point in fact: note the raw edge on the orange TNT bikini; no hem - just a scissor cut! Compare that to the pale blue satin lining on the iconic Evening Splendour coat – or any of the 900 outfits. All of the earliest wardrobe fashions have hemmed dresses and coats, sometimes with lace hem tape. Fabulous attention to detail: Tiny buttons, pleats, fur cuffs, zippers, notched collar jackets! I do have almost all the earliest 900 outfits that had TM labels in my collection and about half the 1600 ensembles. It amazes me today that so few of the 1959 to 1966 outfits are dated; many could be worn on New York’s Fifth Avenue today. (How about that Red Flare? Wow! In my opinion, one of the most underrated ensembles in the Barbie catalog.)
Other collectors are drawn to the Japanese facsimiles of the 900 and 1600 line sold in the US. They are very rare, no doubt about it. (Well, maybe they are only rare if you hope to find them at a reasonable 900- or 1600-series price level!) They were only sold in Japan so were unfamiliar and unavailable to little girls here. But I don’t buy them; in my opinion, they are not as well made as their “twins” sold here and tend to have lesser quality fabrics and seem more dated in prints and style. They also haven’t aged as well over the intervening 60 years; many look a bit dingy to me. And yet they are over-the-moon expensive, some changing hands for well over $1000 and not always, or even often, in mint condition. They just weren’t sold in America so that, of course, makes them very rare. But are they worth, say $1600, just because they were only sold to Japanese children? Not to me. But if you are the type of collector who desires to add all the rarest vintage issues to your collection, then the JEs are worth that sizable share of your vintage budget.
Other collectors may wonder why I care if an early outfit has a TM or an R on its label, but I get a kick out of having near mint versions of the earliest 900 series. Does that maybe suggest sentimentality for my childhood toys? Perhaps. Some accessories claim hundreds of dollars when they are sold, even if they have to remain in your doll’s box or in a drawer and not on display. For instance, a #1 Ponytail cannot “hold” that precious and VVHTF faux gold compact from “Roman Holiday” in her tightly molded hand, and she certainly cannot clasp the coveted powder puff that once in a blue moon (probably less often) is found inside. Yet many collectors will pay $300 to $500 to add that VVHTF Barbie compact to their inventory of vintage accessories.
Putting myself again under the spotlight, why do I need to own a dozen White Ginger bubbles when I could sell them all and raise more than enough funds to pay for one very pristine, very pale and totally un-oxidized WG in its box? It’s a very good question and I think I should be more strategic in my collecting. Often our obsessions (or outright love!) tip the scales over rational economics with vintage collectors. I also own about ten raven brunette 1961 bubble cuts but they are easy to find in fairly pristine condition and accordingly are inexpensive. And it’s hard to match their sheer elegance as evidenced in their ruby red lips, sultry blue-eyed glance, and tight raven bubble style. Elizabeth Taylor? Or Jackie Kennedy? In my opinion, the raven bubble cut is one of the most undervalued vintage dolls available in the secondary Barbie market. But I digress.
So now that we’ve gotten Barbie’s “eye candy” attributes out of the way as a major incentive for what (and why) we collect, what should collectors pause to consider before hitting that Buy it Now button for a particular doll or gown on eBay? First of all, its resale value. Are you likely to sell the vintage item later on? Even if initially you planned to keep the doll or outfit in your collection, there might come a day when you have to sell it to finance a different purchase, or because you found another one in better condition. Also, examine the item for flaws in its posted pictures or item description and calculate your bid accordingly. Neck splits and nose nips, as well as re-rooted hair, greatly discount a doll’s value. You might miss seeing such flaws in the listing, and the seller might not have mentioned them. Repainted lips and retied ponytails are less of a negative when determining a doll’s value. Is it important to you to buy a “new” outfit or doll, one that has never been removed from its box (NRFB), or do you prefer a doll that has been “loved” by one (or a dozen) little girls since it hit the toy shelves in 1959 to 1967? Obviously, NRFB dolls and ensembles carve a greater piece out of your vintage allowance. Finally, speaking of money, do you have a collecting budget? Then maybe you should consider looking a little deeper into the available item listings on eBay since you might find others like the doll or outfit under consideration offered at a lower price in much the same condition. And, budget or not, it’s always a great feeling to find a bargain when it comes to our expensive hobby. But really in the end, “what’s love got to do with it?” Everything.
What Equals Value in Vintage?
October 10, 2018
Once upon a time, there was no internet, no World Wide Web, no Google, no eBay. In other words, there was no way to locate vintage Barbie dolls beyond digging one out of the occasional box of 1960s rubber trolls, dusty Steiff toy animals, and old baseball cards found at antique toy stores. And even then the dolls were usually well worn from years of play, with rubbed makeup, tangled or trimmed hair, and sometimes with missing fingers.
But then what, after all, equals “value” in deciding which collectibles we like to buy? There is no doubt that gaining greater access to vintage dolls and clothes exploded after the invention of the internet in the early to middle 90s. Suddenly you could do an online search and find an early ponytail or bubble or American Girl. (For that matter, I didn’t even know what an “American Girl Barbie” was until I saw one at an antique toy store near me in the late 80s, since I had outgrown my childhood dolls in about 1962, three years before that stylish gal made the toy scene.) As a result, the available supply of the oldest Barbie dolls was hugely multiplied as a secondary market was created by making use of online sites like “listservs”, the early AOL and Yahoo Barbie boards, and, by the late 90s, eBay.
Now, the age-old market truism is that greater supply from increased access will, in most all cases, cause prices to decline. Gaining more choices for the same amount of buyers means collectors will be able to pay less for the items they desire. And that would hold true as well in the world of vintage Barbies except that, when access was nearly non-existent in the pre-internet Barbie world, prices were also low. How could an antique toy seller demand a high price for a doll, even a #1, if its universe of buyers was just those collectors who lived in its immediate neighborhood? I mean, how many people would fork over $500 or $1000 for a hard-to-find vintage Barbie back in, say, 1988?
The internet changed all that and so was a boon to both buyers and sellers – and prices reflected that seismic shift in how collectors accessed dolls. Suddenly East Coast buyers could get their hands on a mint #3 ponytail that had spent its previous 30 years gathering dust on a shelf in California; likewise sellers now had potential buyers across the US, as well as overseas. I remember not knowing that Mattel had ever made redhead ponytails, having turned 11 in 1961 so moving out of the doll age when the titian line was introduced. Then I saw one for sale online on a “listserv” site in about 1991 by a seller in Texas and I was able to make a deal with the seller and add the beauty (which I still own) to my collection. Not too long after that, vintage collectors on AOL created our own (aforementioned) “Barbie Board” where we would trade information on restoration tips, list dolls we wanted to sell, and share pictures of dolls we had already bought there.
As a result, access to the oldest dolls was expanding rapidly by the mid 1990s but, even then, vintage prices defied economic logic since the increased surge of dolls literally available at our fingertips did not lead to uniformly lower prices, at least not at first. Certainly you had more choice, so if you wanted a vintage brunette ponytail and was offered one from a seller in, say, New Jersey for $350, you could continue to check the listings and find one at a lower price like $250, in, perhaps, Arizona. That said, the highest prices I’ve ever seen on the internet for #1 Ponytails tipped the scales at about $10,000 for a very nice but not necessarily mint doll in a TM box, with our without its two-pronged vintage stand in the late 90s after eBay had begun to dominate the lion’s share of vintage Barbie sales. That compares with about $6000 for the same doll now, with original stand which can sell for upwards of $1000 itself.
So increased supply doesn’t usually add to value since you did have a greater choice of dolls to buy after the internet was born. That said, for some coveted issues like the #1s/2s or a Midnight Color Magic, the near mint dolls were/are still relatively rare, then and now, so that keeps prices high. And you cannot discount the emotion involved with certain vintage dolls, where collectors are willing to pay more than market value just because a certain doll wins their heart.
So rarity, along with supply, can also determine value in vintage collecting. What was never identified as such in the early days of online vintage trading 20 years ago are the so-called “Japanese exclusives” – in dolls or costumes. I had not heard that description used with regard to an outfit or doll made in Tokyo but not exported to the US back then. I am not sure why Mattel created such a line for Asia alone; the concept of the original 1959 Barbie doll was to create a high-quality fashion doll with its own line of exquisitely tailored outfits to sell to little girls in the US. And maybe they were intended for export but the company instead moved on to the next issue - from ponytails to bubble cuts to swirl ponytails, to Color Magics, to American Girls to Sideparts. I mean, not only did Mattel aim to keep the party going in creating one new face and hair style after another for Barbie, but it often combined left over parts from earlier issues onto newer parts coming off the assembly line – for example, the bend leg bubble cuts or the pink skin American Girls. These dolls are both very rare but were really just “leftovers” and not a newly designed issue at the time they were first put together.
As a result, many “combination” issues or “exclusive” ensembles were left behind in the European and Asian toy marketplaces. It is true that the “Barbie in Japan” book came out on book stands in 1994 but in my memory it wasn’t sold on a large-scale basis until a decade later when I wager interest in the Japanese-only fashions became greater as the internet increased access to vintage dolls. In reading Keiko Kimura Shibano’s account of the Japanese 900-series variations, she suggested that those “exclusive” costumes were earlier versions of Mattel’s US-marketed wardrobe as the company “tried out” different fabrics in the early outfits. Also, the Barbie doll did not sell well in Japan. The most popular Japanese doll by the time of her launch in the mid 60s was the far more innocent-looking, doe-eyed Licca, made by the Japanese toy monolith, the Takara Company. So “Mattel made some effort to develop exclusive dolls and fashions to please the aesthetics of a different cultural milieu – a New Midge (and Skipper) and the kimono fashions were (also) created,” says Karen Caviale in her introduction to Shibano’s pivotal book. There was also a difference in quality-control standards in the alternative Japan-only line of clothes, Shibano points out. I’ve noticed that the so-called “exclusives” look cheaper than their mass-marketed US versions, and apparently this extended to problematic issues with fitting the costumes on the vintage Barbie body. Never mind that the materials used were cheaper with more dated patterns on the Japanese versions, they are rare with a capital “R”, and that is catnip enough to attract many vintage collectors in the US today, nearly 60 years later.
For many Barbie lovers, that rarity, despite the lesser quality of the exclusives, does represent value in the vintage world. For my penny, I’d just as soon break open my piggy bank to get my hands on a mint or NRFB 900-series outfit. Though admittedly it can be dangerous to buy NRFB with the intention of tearing open the box as your objective. Not only are you paying big bucks to get an essentially “new” –at least in appearance–costume, but I have found that sometimes parts of the outfit will disintegrate in your hands after exposure to air, after so many years contained in a flat, cellophane-covered environment!
For me, then, the Japanese “exclusives” hold little value because of their lesser quality material that is then attached to an astronomical price tag. It’s not unusual to see one of the Asian variations of the 900 series selling for $1000 or higher when a collector can buy a mint “Red Flare” which, in my mind, is one of the most undervalued of all 900 ensembles, or a “Friday Night Date”, for well under $100. But I realize I am probably in the minority in this critical evaluation because, for many collectors, the “exclusives” represent value since they are hardly ever seen in the US market. And I admit that I do like to collect some of the hard-to-find variation gowns in the US market like “Junior Prom” with the silk flowers, instead of the more common “embroidered” floral embellishments, at the waist; the very rare polished cotton version of the “After Five” coat dress; or the pale ivory-peach, instead of pink, “Enchanted Evening” gown. So even for doubters like me, there are some “exclusives” which even define value for my collecting tastes.
When Barbie Left Japan
By Ellen Taylor
Occasionally I am asked to present a discussion about Barbie’s origins and evolution, both as a brand as well as a widely coveted fashion doll. I have typically called these talks, “Barbie: The History and the Hysteria.” One of the facts that I know is sure to shock or surprise my audiences is when I casually state at the outset that Barbie was made in Japan and not in America, either then or since. “Never in America”, I tell them. “What?” their confused gazes seem to suggest. “How could America’s most popular and iconic doll not be, well, American?” (In the interest of editorial accuracy, I should insert here that two lesser known issues, “Busy Steffie” and “Busy Barbie”, were the only exceptions, both being manufactured in the U.S. in 1972.)
Ruth Handler made her now infamous trip to Switzerland in about 1957, during which she was introduced to the “naughty” dashboard toy doll, Bild Lilli. Lilli was based on a German comic strip femme fatale, and was sold in smoke shops which mostly targeted men and, as most collectors know, she inspired the creation of our favorite fashion doll. Handler reportedly had played paper dolls with her daughter, Barbara (no coincidence that the new doll was also named Barbie) and wanted Mattel to create a more “mature” doll, to be sold to young girls, onto which they could project their dreams about what they might become when they grew up. Handler wanted the doll to be affordable and to have an wardrobe of clothes sold separately. Before Barbie, most little girls played with baby dolls like Tiny Tears and Betsy Wetsy, with the notable exception of the small-breasted Revlon and Little Miss Revlon dolls by Ideal, which hit the scene a couple of years before Barbie. Handler brought a Bild Lilli home, the story goes, to see if her engineers could use it as a pattern for making a similar vinyl teenage doll for global distribution. The officials at Mattel acknowledged that a similar doll could be made, again so the story goes, but were a bit aghast at the thought of molding those sumptuous mounds of plastic “flesh”, aka breasts (oh no!), onto the chest of a doll. They thought that the company was just fine, thank you, soon to produce its popular Chatty Cathy doll, so why should it scandalize the toy world through the manufacture of such a, well, sexy doll? I mean, a doll with… a bosom ! Again, as the story (or perhaps urban legend) goes. So Ruth tucked the reconfigured Bild Lilli doll, molded by Jack Ryan, her chief engineer, into the satchel of one of her engineers and sent him to Japan with the mandate to mass produce her desired teenage fashion doll. And, as they say, the rest is history.
To be sure, there were cost considerations behind Barbie’s “birthplace” being in Japan, too. Mattel production executives told Handler there was no way they could make an inexpensive doll if it had to conform to all the exotic facial details and fine tailoring she envisioned for Barbie. So that’s when she sent the reconfigured Lilli-as-Barbie doll off to Tokyo, which was still recovering from the devastation it had endured during World War 11 and probably anxious for employment opportunities. Accordingly, from 1959 to 1967, Barbies were made in Japan, exclusively (and some issues until 1972, according to the terrific on-line guide, “Doll Reference”). In 1968, production of some of the mod issues that had been patented with the new 1966 bodies were briefly moved to Mexico (until 1970); after that Barbies were made in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and, from 1986 to the present, in China. As labor costs rose in one Asian country, Mattel shifted production to the next undeveloped market to benefit from its cheaper labor pool, almost always in Southeast Asia. This allowed Mattel to keep the doll’s price tag around $3.00 US on its early dolls. And with each move, manufacturing standards declined as Mattel sought to maximize its bottom line.
For example, after Barbie left Japan in 1967 the high production quality mandated for the early dolls began to erode significantly. Satins, chiffon and brocades that were used in the early 900- and 1600-series outfits were replaced by far cheaper polyesters beginning with the TNT issue. Attention to detail also suffered; not only were the fabrics used of lesser quality after 1966, but the workmanship also sharply declined. It’s always a bit shocking to me that the new “teenage” face introduced with the Twist n’ Turn Barbie in 1967 came on a body that was clothed in a flimsy two-piece orange swimsuit with seams that were scissor cut raw, not finished! Compare that to the iconic black-and-white striped “zebra” swimsuit created for the earliest ponytails, with all seams neatly turned under and tightly stitched, as well as the delicate netted hem tape used on such classic ensembles as the pink gown in “Enchanted Evening” with its carefully finished seams. I maintain that none of the so-called “mod” line of clothes cobbled together for the new TNT and other mod dolls after 1967 exhibited anywhere near the high quality of any of the gowns and outfits created by Barbie’s original design team led by Charlotte Johnson and her Japanese counterparts.
An aside: it’s interesting that Barbie was never as successful in Japan as she was in America. Mattel was only in the Top 20 of toy suppliers there in later years, according to Andrew Pollack’s 1996 NY Times article “Barbie’s Journey in Japan” ; the most popular Japanese doll by her mid 60s’ launch was the far more innocent-looking, doe-eyed Licca, made by the Japanese toy monolith, the Takara Company. This is ironic since in today’s enormous secondary Barbie market for vintage dolls and clothes, “anything Japanese”, ie: the Japanese exclusives, sells for multiples of the prices at which the more “common” 900 series outfits typically change hands on eBay. I would also argue that the 900 line is of higher quality than its Japanese variations, however rare the latter might be.
Why did quality suffer when Barbie packed up and moved on to the next developing Asian country? Probably, as with most companies’ priorities, Mattel was just trying to preserve – or enhance - its profit margins. The economic climate that existed in Japan in the late 50s was likely much different a decade later so that it became more expensive to make a doll with all the attention to quality that was Barbie in her earliest days. So they packed up and shifted manufacturing to a less developed market. But if that kept Mattel’s costs down, then why couldn’t they maintain the high quality standards seen in the ponytails, bubbles, American Girls, and Color Magics that had served to create skyrocketing US demand for the early dolls and reinforces their value even today when changing hands on eBay? The easy answer is greed: a desire to increase profit margins by selling the dolls at the same price while cutting costs on materials and labor.
Thankfully many of the earliest dolls survive which surprises me, but happily so. That, as collectors, we are still able to access the exquisite quality and stunning beauty of the first Barbies, sometimes never removed from box and other times with pristine ensembles that remarkably haven’t aged even after 58 years. When I see a vintage box that still has its original price tag, often discounted to $2.98, on its end, I cringe, thinking “if only”! But at least I can, all these years later, still share in the beauty of an antique Barbie doll sometimes little changed from her earliest days on toy shelves. That is just fine with me.
Some Ginger Ale With Your Bubblecut, Anyone?
October 8, 2017
The White Ginger bubble cut, released by Mattel in 1961 -- she of the pale pink lips, “Barbie only” body, and curiously non-matching red finger and toe nail paint-- is highly coveted by us collectors, to be sure. But also, I will offer the opinion that she is not very hard to find. What? A hugely desired doll that is not difficult to get your hands on? How is that possible, or even likely, in the world of Barbie supply and demand? Simple economics would dictate that if a collector really wanted this doll, you better be prepared to dig deep into your pockets to pay for it.
But here’s the facts: A casual search on eBay on any given day will unearth at least three or four White Ginger listings. (A hint: sometimes the seller will describe them simply as a “blonde bubble cut” so check for possible WGs lurking in there, too.). And, despite all the extremely favorable press surrounding this doll over the past two decades, it usually won’t break the bank to buy one of these treasured bubbles. Why? It’s all in the hair color. You can find one ”out of box” with intact pink lips for $50 or less – no kidding. But here comes the, well, “but”: they will usually have a brassier yellow hair color that has oxidized from its original pale “ginger ale” blonde. So whether or not you can find enough dollars in your wallet to add a “WG” – as they are known by the many collectors in her large fan club -- to your collection depends on how much oxidization you can accept in the doll’s hair that you ultimately choose. Pale ginger ale = bigger bucks; more golden ginger hue = many bargains.
I own about a dozen White Gingers (I know, I know), and about half of them have retained their original very pale blonde hair shade, without a hint of the brassiness that often has forced out the more subtle ginger-y white blonde the doll enjoyed on original issuance. I have paid from $75 to $500 for my more pristine White Gingers. Yes, you can even sometimes get the unoxidized pale WGs for a really affordable price. Why? Sometimes a collector just gets lucky when a seller doesn’t know what they are selling so posts a Buy It Now price that is very reasonable and merely calls it a “blonde bubble cut”. Or else the doll might have a minor flaw (tiny rub to lip or a pale green shadow around the earring hole) that some buyers cannot tolerate.
For example, my $75 White Ginger had a greasy face, fairly common with the WGs, with perfect makeup and hair color and was out-of-box whereas the $500 doll came in her original box with wrist tag and accessories with perfect pink lips and a very slightly oxidized shade of blonde. For me, the most important factor deciding what doll I buy are non-rubbed original pink lips. That said, I recently grabbed a White Ginger with rubs on both her upper and lower lips but with a gorgeous head of absolutely unoxidized blonde hair! (Call me incorrigible; I just love these bubbles!)
As Teresa wrote in an earlier discussion of the White Ginger beauty on this site, this popular bubble cut has many different looks, depending on when in the cycle she was sold. WGs that were sold early in her 1961 issue have thinner faces, like the other blonde, raven and titian bubbles that year. Her lips are bright pink and rarely oxidized to white, as you see in the later Platinum Bubbles, and they often enjoy unfaded smoky shadow over her teal colored eyes. Other WGs have bright blue eyes. Rarely, if ever, have I found a White Ginger with cheek blush that remains on her face. Sometimes a WG is confused with a Platinum bubble which usually have chubbier faces due to the larger neck knob on the Midge Barbie bodies, circa 1963. Of course, as Teresa discussed, there are all kinds of transitional White Ginger-to-Platinum dolls lurking about from 1962. Their eyes may be more blue than teal and less smoky shadow remains over the eyes; the lips usually have oxidized to white. And the closer to 1963, the doll’s nails will be pink/coral instead of red.
White Ginger “purists” like me use these four defining factors when determining if a blonde bubble is truly a WG: thinner faces, pink lips, red finger and toe nails, Barbie (only) bodies. And often, but not always, they have smoky shadow above their eyes. But why red nails on a doll with pink lips anyway? Perhaps the fact that most 1961 bubbles had red nails and red lips, too. That said, you can find a raven bubble from 1961 with the thinner face and pink lips, but most of those black-headed bubbles had Lucy red lips and nails. (And they are stunning and way underpriced – but that’s fodder for another column.)
Until then, I will continue to scan blonde bubble listings on eBay in the hopes of latching on to that pinnacle of White Ginger perfection, a very pale blonde doll with original pink lips and tons of smoky shadow to offset her pale facial vinyl and pastel-hued lips. Be still my heart! But you ask how many WGs do I need, anyway? A fair question but, hmm, I think I am not going to answer you.
Oh Barbie, Our Barbie, Of What Hair Color Art Thou?
If you ask almost any person on the street just what color hair adorns a Barbie doll’s head (new or vintage), you will undoubtedly, and immediately, receive the reply, “Blonde”. If the person sneers at the mere thought of a Barbie doll, they might add the epithet “bimbo!”, or the average man might even proclaim “bombshell!”, with a twinkle in his eye. And while the first Barbie dolls sold in 1959, the #1 and #2 ponytails, were indeed dominated by blondes, by a ratio of 3:1 over brunettes, Mattel added a redhead ponytail to its production line in 1961 with the #5 titian ponytail, as well as a first-issue redhead bubble cut the same year. Many people would be astonished to learn that Barbie, in fact, was available in three hair colors by her third year of production.
(Above: Blonde #4 Ponytail)
I received my first Barbie doll in about 1960; I was ten years old, so already at a relatively older age for doll play. She was – yes! – a blonde #4 ponytail. Until I was an adult, I never knew there was a Barbie who had those black-and-white “ geisha” eyes of the 1s and 2s. Yet, I was at an age when it was reasonable to expect I’d have seen a #1 when the first Barbies hit toy shelves in March 1959. I never saw one until I began to find a few well-played-with vintage dolls in the late 80s, in antique toy stores or consignment shops -- not that I was ever lucky enough to cast my eyes upon an abandoned #1 in a dusty corner at a secondhand shop bearing a meager price tag of, say, $5.00 ! If only….! (And of course, even if I had, she would likely have been a blonde!) And yet I did have a titian bubble cut among my three childhood dolls.
One day a few years later, in the early days of the internet, I saw, for the first time, a #5 titian ponytail on one of the “listserves” on Yahoo that used to be communication boards for followers of a variety of interests. I was besotted. What luscious deep, copper penny red hair adorning a ponytail’s head! What dark teal blue “come hither” eyes! I had to have her. I was not working a full-time job at the time, instead staying at home to raise my young daughter. But my very understanding husband loaned me the $300 I needed to send to the redhead ponytail’s owner in Texas. This was how business was done in the mid 90s: No PayPal! No eBay! No credit assurances needed! I sent the money by personal check and the seller then shipped the doll to me. That was the “Wild West” world of the pre-eBay internet; your word was, well, your “blonde”, I mean your bond. Deals were transacted daily. No fees (I can’t say that too often). It’s amazing to imagine that world now. Back then I heard of very few people who lost any money or received fraudulent dolls or ensembles, even without “buyer’s money back guarantees”. We were just a community of vintage collectors who loved our fashion icon. Anyway, back to hair colors. Now I had my first redhead ponytail, though I was aware that Barbie could have red hair; as I mentioned, I had been given a first-issue titian bubble back in 1961. But I lost my three childhood dolls around 1979 so I was jubilant when I found vintage dolls in antique stores (1980s) or on line by the mid-1990s as the internet evolved. To this day, the redheads of any Barbie issue are my favorites.
But our story does not end with these three hair colors: blonde, brunette (really more akin to a raven black), and titian, after the famous Venetian artist Titian (pronounced: Tih-shun; his Italian name was Tiziano Vecelli) who was renowned for using bold colors in his works and especially favored among his subjects women who had red hair. (Wikipedia defines “titian” as “a tint of red hair, most commonly described as ‘brownish orange’”, apparently after the hue of many women’s coiffures in Titian’s paintings.)
But red wasn’t the only new color introduced in 1961; White Ginger bubble cuts, with their very pale blonde hair, were also added to the product line that year, as were the sable brownette bubbles. Both were subtle variations of the more common yellow blonde and dark or raven brunette. White Gingers were identified by that moniker on the outside of their boxes, though sometimes with a separate stick-on label, but a brownette’s box mysteriously leaves off the name of the hair color; it says merely #850 (space) BUBBLE CUT”. You can also find ash blonde and platinum or champagne bubbles from 1962 onward. And then in 1962 and 1963 Mattel expanded its palettes of hair colors for the bubbles and ponytails, adding ash blonde and a more subdued brownish redhead to the #6 and #7 ponytails, while in 1964 came the platinum swirls. This was a champagne platinum with pink lips and never intended as a mere blonde. None of these shades were oxidations of the original hair colors of blonde and brunette that left the Mattel factory for toy stores in 1959 to 1960. Those “derivative” hair colors would come later in 1967 when Mattel produced a dramatic change in the Barbie facial mold with the more teenage-looking Twist n’ Turn (TNT) Barbie.
The TNT’s original hair shades were Sun Kissed (pale blonde), Summer Sand (ash), Go Go Co Co (brownette), and Chocolate Bon Bon (raven brunette). Some claim they also issued a redhead or titian TNT. I sometimes question whether they produced the titian TNT since it was never assigned a colorful, descriptive modifier like “Sun Kissed” such as the other four TNT shades. It had been assumed by most experts and collectors I knew in the 90s that titian was more likely an oxidation of the Go Go Co Co hair shade. Indeed, in Christopher Varaste’s indispensable book, “Face of the American Dream: Barbie Doll 1959 – 1971”, he notes the four original TNT hair colors but then, under the topic of “oxidized hair colors”, shows an official TNT trade-in box, with the sticker “Ash Blonde” on it which contained an “untouched” titian TNT. In that way, Varaste puts the possibility out there that this titian began her life as an ash blonde, perhaps Summer Sand? Interesting that Mattel marked the doll “ash blonde”, also not one of the “official” TNT hair colors.
You will also notice on eBay and in vintage Barbie reference books a plethora of alternative hair colors never conceived of by Mattel for its TNT line, like platinum blonde, pink lilac, black cherry and perhaps, as I suggest, titian. They were all rather enchanting shades that evolved over time, as with the oxidation of the Sun Kissed to platinum and pink lilac and I’d guess Chocolate Bon Bon was the “base” color for the Black Cherry or Eggplant dolls you sometimes find on the secondary vintage markets today. It’s also possible that the titian TNT was an oxidized Go Go Co Co brownette. The question of whether Mattel truly manufactured a titian TNT will remain unanswered.
But we who love vintage Barbie certainly know by now that our girl was never intended to be merely some “dumb” blonde tossed thoughtlessly on the doll market – au contraire! We become intoxicated with adoration when we gaze upon the exotic faces of our #3 or #4 ponytails or first-issue bubble cuts and thrill to the subtlety of her many dreamy hair colors, from raven to black cherry to platinum to redhead to, yes, all the many variations of blonde in between.
Whatever Happened to Gene?
In 1995, Ashton Drake, until then largely a manufacturer of collectible porcelain dolls which were typically replicas of real people, made a big splash in the fashion doll world with the launch of its dramatic 15.5-inch tall Gene doll, created by doll artist Mel Odom. Gene’s backstory was that she was a fledging movie star ingénue in the 1940s and her extensive wardrobe was made up of exceptionally well-designed ensembles to represent each stage of Gene’s life in New York and Hollywood, as well as reflecting costumes worn in some of her movies.
Gene was sold alternately as a dressed doll in a beautifully tailored gown or suit, with accessories that closely mirrored the attention to detail seen in the earliest, highest quality years of Barbie (1959 to 1967), or as “Simply Gene” dressed in a modest two-piece cotton swimsuit of shorts and a strapless top, with her logo “Gene” printed all over each item.
Gene sold for about $80.00 in her dressed-box incarnation with the later swimsuit model retailing for about $55.00 in the late 90s. She had a painted hard vinyl face with applied lashes, dramatic eye paint, and perfect red lips. Her hair styles were often reflective of those postwar ‘dos from the late 40s, so some often look a little dated now. Or sometimes they were pulled back from the face (“no bangs”) or with straight of sideswept bangs with curly chin- or shoulder-length tresses that you might see worn by young women today. Her hair colors ranged from a white platinum (2000) to raven black to copper red to paler strawberry blonde to chocolate brown to golden blonde. In other words, except for her larger size, Gene bore a lot of similarities to Barbie.
Also like vintage Barbie, the different Gene dolls and ensembles were given evocative names, like “Premiere”, “Red Venus”, “Monaco”, “Hello Hollywood”, “Love Saves the Day”, “Goodbye New York”, “Love’s Ghost”, “Cleopatra”, and “Sparkling Seduction”. And Gene sold well. In my opinion -- and I suspect many other fashion doll collectors would agree -- one of her biggest draws was the beautiful tailoring of her ensembles which you could buy separately from the doll, using the same business model put forth by Mattel in 1959 with Barbie. The main exception was that while Gene was usually sold wearing an exquisite ensemble, Barbie most often was marketed wearing either her black-and-white zebra or red helenca swimsuit and little girls bought her outfits separately. I suspect that many vintage Barbie collectors also were drawn to Gene in her heyday from 1995 to 2000; as noted, Ashton Drake used a similar business model to the one seen in Mattel’s factories. High quality dolls, lovely hair styling, exquisite attention to detail in her designer fashions and accessories – all at a reasonable market price. And yet, after roughly five years, Gene basically disappeared from store shelves. Perhaps that overstates Gene’s sales arc; by 2000 her popularity slumped considerably, at least. I think it is fair to say that the Gene “buzz” faded in her last decade until mass production ended in 2010. Why?
I don’t think you can simply say she was the latest victim of Barbie’s multi-decade reign atop the fashion doll kingdom. This was no Tressy or Little Miss Revlon or the later Mdvanii; Gene was slightly different. Larger, yes. But while she undoubtedly was created to appeal to the legions of fashion doll admirers, I don’t think Ashton Drake’s intention was to topple Barbie from her throne as were the blatant attempts by earlier competitors, all who failed. Gene was created to “live” alongside Barbie. Vintage Barbie collectors could also fill their remaining doll shelf space with Gene. Remember, this was 1995 and Barbie’s best days were 30 years behind her. Which is to say, Mattel made their highest commitment to Barbie’s workmanship -- to the quality of her ensembles and the heavier body weight and exotic facial design -- from the years of 1959 until 1967 with the introduction of the mod era with Twist n’ Turn Barbie. No longer did they use fine fabrics like satin, brocades, silk, or taffeta once the mod era arrived. Mod Barbie lovers must concede that even their first TNT doll was dressed in a cheaply made polyester two-piece swimsuit with raw edges, with no attention paid to the exquisite finishing details like lace facing of arm holes or hand sewn zippers that you see on many of the vintage sheaths. And Gene featured nearly the same commitment to workmanship and accessories as seen in vintage Barbie (note that the mod outfits do not come with tiny accessories like alarm clocks, felt doggies, water bottles, car keys, microphones, or tiny brass compacts tucked away in soft corduroy or velvet hand bags!) Mattel began to abandon its devotion to high quality and, frankly, the artistry seen in the earliest ponytails, bubble cuts, and American Girls, as early as 1967. Never again would its dolls have the design, the exquisite tailoring, and the commitment to quality seen in the vintage dolls. All of a sudden its fabric of choice was polyester for the cheaply made outfits they sold for the TNTs, the Hair Fairs, the Standard, Julia, Twiggy, Casey, and Francie. I realize this might put me at odds with the many collectors who love TNTs and Francie but I stand by this opinion. But I digress.
So here was Gene in 1995, hitting the market with considerable success by looking a lot like a larger version of the earliest Barbie, in terms of her facial sophistication and gorgeous ensembles. And I think Ashton Drake’s intention was to present doll lovers with a new generation of a high quality fashion doll with separate outfits you could buy, complete with charming and nicely manufactured accessories like tiny teddy bears, or hat boxes, or violins sold with her ensembles, much like the 900 series Barbie line. So what happened?
My reply can be covered with two words: Madra Lord. Madra, introduced in 2000, was created to be Gene’s competitor for movie roles once our girl landed in Hollywood. Ashton Drake described her as a “villainess” and her hard facial “snear” affirmed that characteristic. Evil and conniving, she was presumedly intended to expand the Gene story to allow for more dolls and clothes to be sold. But I never liked Madra and never bought one and soon lost interest in my Gene collection. I didn’t “get” the new entrant into Gene Marshall’s universe and certainly would have been happy if Ashton Drake had continued merely to create and sell more Genes along with her beautiful clothing. How could you warm up to such a nasty looking doll as Madra? Of course, this is all just my opinion but I would be curious as to the total sales figures for Madra compared with Gene. Nearly 17 years later, I still feel the introduction of Madra led to a gradual buyer disinterest in Gene, likely resulting in lower sales and an abandonment of her production by 2010. So I admit I was surprised while researching the internet for this article to discover that, in fact, Gene continued to be made until 2010 when production was largely shut down.
In the interim, Ashton Drake stepped out of the business of manufacturing and selling Gene in 2005, after making the doll (and the evil Madra!) for ten years. At that point, doll designer Jason Wu took over production of the Gene line for Integrity Toys for her last five years. Gene’s face changed after Wu came into the picture with a somewhat softer visage with less exotic eye makeup. Gene was later briefly resurrected in 2013 with Mel Odom standing by her side at the IDEX (International Doll Expo) in Orlando that spring, now ramped up as a resin ball-jointed doll, a half inch taller and retailing for $550, by JAMIEshow Dolls. USA Yowza! Only about 200 dolls were sold under her sub-moniker “Phoenix”, with a small limited edition release. They are now sold out. A second Gene Marshall “J’Adore” followed that summer, with the final Gene “White Orchid” then sold as a Gene Basic doll. Gene’s final-final swan song came in 2015, marking her 20th anniversary, in Chicago with the “All That Jazz” Gene doll.
I admit I was surprised to hear that Gene continued to be made and released after 2000, albeit in fits and starts. I hardly heard any “chatter” in doll chat rooms about new Genes coming forth once Integrity Toys assumed oversight of the product line through the last half of the 00s. As noted, I have found no data detailing sales numbers of Gene from 2005 to 2015, but I would guess they were far smaller than those that our 40s movie star attracted in her first decade.
Maybe my interest in Gene merely waned at that point, as my focus shifted to Tonner’s Tyler Wentworth and Sydney Chase as well as to Madame Alexander’s Alexandra Fairchild Ford doll, both of a similar size to Gene. And always my love for the vintage Barbies cast a shadow over all my other flirtations with newer fashion dolls, ultimately bringing me back to Barbie again. And again. I recently found my old box of Gene dolls from the late 90s and it briefly revived my interest in the doll for much of the same reason I continue to love Barbie – her lovely, exotic face and hair styling as well as glamourous and beautifully-tailored clothing. As Genes have become less popular, her price has fallen so that you can now easily buy the first Gene “Premiere” for about $65 when at its highest demand in maybe 1999, I sold my original Premiere for close to $300. A basic Gene in swimsuit fetches about $20 now and “Red Venus” Gene (one of the first three Gene dolls) will set you back only about $25 right now on eBay. So I grabbed some more of the earliest Gene dolls this fall. They are lovely, well-crafted fashion dolls and you cannot argue with the fact that they are an exceptional value-for-money right now. For those reasons alone, Genes provide an attractive complement to fashion doll collections right now. For less than $500 – about the cost of just one very nice #3 ponytail Barbie – you can probably build a collection of ten 1990s Gene dolls. Of all the fashion dolls that have come to market since Barbie’s launch nearly 58 years ago, trying to get a slice of the Barbie sales “pie”, Gene is arguably the best value and the closest competitor in terms of beauty and quality. Long lost Gene? Not so much; maybe just stuck in the back of our closets, temporarily forgotten, as mine were.
The Allure of the Elusive Brownette Bubble
By Ellen Taylor
You will know her when you see her. The rich shade of medium brown hair, often called “sable”, is unlike any other brunette hue you will see in any vintage Barbie. Her tighter bouffant hairstyle, a trademark of the 1961 bubbles, often combed from the left side to right, the opposite of other bubbles (and I believe that “backwards” combing is only found on the brownettes). The bright red lips, sometimes a hint of smoky shadow over her eyebrows. Her hair color is not the dark chocolate or “muddy” brown like the standard-issue brunette bubbles; no way near. And it’s not the black/raven shade of the first-issue brunettes, as beautiful as they are (and undervalued – but that’s for another column.) A new collector may wonder what all the fuss is about – until they see one. Then they will gasp, “Oh my. This isn’t like brunette at all. I have never seen a bubble’s hair color that looks like this one. It’s so….. different and, well, sophisticated.”
(The Brownette in the photo has the reverse rooting direction and also all-original face paint!--Comment by Teresa)
Their faces are often greasy so that many times their red lips have “slid” off their faces. Sometimes brows are gone, too. I bought a “faceless” brownette at a show once and paid $200 for her. Sent her away to the restoration artist Krista Candler and she came back a show stopper with perfect new red lips and dark brown brows. Back to her original Wow! Try searching on eBay for a brownette and you’ll get listings for brunettes and queries from eBay as to the accuracy of your search, as they cross out the word “brownette” on the screen. “Do you mean brunette?” NO! Brownette. BROWN-ETTE! And when you do get some listings after you do the search, you will see all kinds of bubbles pop up on the screen, claiming to be brownette, when they are actually a brunette or sometimes even dark ash.
You also have to be careful because sometimes a listing picture of a 1961 titian bubble can look like a brownette, if the photograph is dark. You get excited, because you think the listing, which might be titled simply “First Issue Bubble Cut”, just might actually be a brownette unbeknownst to the inexperienced seller. You get hopeful because it does happen. Which is to say, it’s conceivable to find a rare doll, even a brownette, lurking in the eBay sales queue, misidentified. But then you use the zoom feature and look more closely and realize, crestfallen….”Oh, she’s…not…a…brownette (in disguise) but just a titian”, also a first issue, also with red lips. The brownette and titian faces can be similar since they were both manufactured using the thinner face molds with the sultry eyes seen in the 1961 dolls.
But the brownette bubble was only sold in 1961 so there are not as many of them as of the other hair colors. That fact is the simple economic reason why their prices are higher. But an even greater factor adding to her popularity and high value is that fabulous sable hair color. Mattel also manufactured blonde, raven (black), and titian (redhead) bubbles that first year, and continued to offer those hair colors until it stopped making bubbles in 1967 so there are plenty of those shades in the secondary market on eBay or at doll shows.
How much will you need to plop down on the counter in order to add one to your collection? For the pristine brownette who has all her original face paint (no retouches), with her wrist tag attached and in her original box, marked simply “No. 850. Bubble” (no hair color identified), it could come to about $1500; for an excellent doll with retouched lips but original brows (no wrist tag) you might have to pay $800 with box. If she has had a full retouch, both eyes and brows, it’s fairly common to see them listed around $500. Brownette bubbles were sold using either the heavier #4 Barbie only body, in line with the Mattel famous “waste not, want not” tradition of using up all body parts before moving on to a new mold, or the new hollow #5 body that were created for the greasier-faced ponytails that replaced the #4 ponytail that year. It’s a very lucky collector, indeed, who can find a pristine brownette bubble with intact original face paint in her “Gay Parisienne” Barbie bubble cut box with all her accessories – and her stellar price tag reflects that scarcity.
The other bubble that was only sold in the first issue year of 1961 is the highly coveted “White Ginger” with very pale blonde hair, almost champagne hued. To my knowledge they are the only bubbles sold that year that didn’t have red lip paint, but instead were manufactured with bubblegum pink lips which sometimes have rubs but usually retain their pink hue, and WGs are also very much desired by collectors. However it’s fairly easy to find a White Ginger on eBay, especially those with hair that has oxidized to a more brassy yellow hue. When you find a brownette, the medium brown hair color is as rich and unique as the day she left the Mattel factory.
Bubbles continued to be manufactured by Mattel until it unveiled its new face mold for the Twist n’ Turn “mod” Barbie in 1967, with the line containing yellow and platinum blondes, brunettes (raven and dark brown), and titian hair colors. At any given time, you are lucky if you can find three brownettes listed on eBay; often there are none. And they are not a doll with hair color that has oxidized from another shade like the Ruby Color Magics that were originally raven (“midnight”) haired, or the eggplant or platinum TNTs, who originally had dark “Chocolate Bon Bon” hair that gradually changed to a purplish brunette (known as eggplant or black cherry) or the Sun Kissed Blonde TNT that paled to platinum blonde over the intervening 50 years.
But the brownette bubbles’ unique shade of brown hair didn’t fade or darken over the next 55 years, unlike the White Ginger or the platinum blonde, or grow duller like some of the other brunettes. Her beautiful hair is kind of like molten milk chocolate, also sometimes described as “chestnut”. But we really didn’t need to go further than our first adjective “sable”, because a mink coat seems to be exactly the right attire for this fabulous doll. So you see, this sultry bubble is no everyday brunette; this girl’s got verve and a style all her own!
The Attack of the Clones!
May 3, 2016
By 1960, everybody seemed to be getting into the fashion doll world. Barbie’s hugely successful launch nine months earlier only served to rev up the enthusiasm at other toy companies to jump on the bandwagon. Before Barbie, there were pre-teenage dolls like Ideal’s popular Little Miss Revlon and the 10.5 inch Toni by American Character, both in 1958, as well as Uneeda’s Suzette Tiny Teen doll (1957 to 62), who was clearly a LMR knock off.
While Madame Alexander’s very collectible Cissy doll from 1955 has been crowned by some as being the first “adult” fashion doll, most of these dolls merely pretended to be fashion dolls; their figures were more similar to those of a 12- or 13-year old (except for Cissy who could maybe “pass” for 20!). It was not until Barbie hit the store shelves in 1959 did any doll possess a truly adult figure, ie: a small waist and developed breasts! It’s what got Barbie into trouble over all these years; you don’t hear anyone lambasting the much larger Cissy over her “grown up” figure. And no wonder everyone wanted to create a doll just like Barbie; in her first nine months, Mattel’s blockbuster femme fatale sold 350,000 dolls, at a list price of $3.00 each! In current dollars, adjusted for inflation, that was more like $24.00 per doll for a total of $8.4 million -- serious money, indeed. And that was just in 1959.
Before Barbie, and her more flat-chested predecessors like Toni and LMR and the 8-inch Betsy McCall, there were mostly baby and toddler/little girl dolls, like Betsy Wetsy and Tiny Tears and also Ginny and Muffie available for little girls to choose from on store shelves. So, of course it was inevitable that toy companies would hole themselves up in research and development meetings, frantically hammering out designs for their own fashion dolls by the early 60s. Why not? The appetite for buxom dolls with long flowing hair or bubble cut, bouffant hair styles appeared to be insatiable among young girls so you can appreciate why other doll makers would want to carve out a piece of the fashion doll pie for themselves. Their goal – having their own fashion doll – was already acknowledged; the challenge for Mattel’s competitors was deciding how to create and market their own version of Barbie since they appeared to decide that there was no way to improve upon Mattel’s business model: an 11.5-inch vinyl doll with a shapely figure and hair that could be styled, along with having her own wardrobe of finely-tailored ensembles constructed by her very own design team. Although Madame Alexander, Ideal, Nancy Ann and Vogue were the dominant 1950s doll makers and even though their dolls were very popular in the 1950s to mid-60s, none of these companies was ever able to create a blockbuster like Barbie going forward.
Against that backdrop arrived the Attack of the Clones. Around 1962, three years into Barbie’s undisputed reign over the doll world, a large number of toy companies began to hit the toy shelves with rather shameless imitations of Barbie herself. Not able to come up with a commodity as lovingly designed, nor willing to commit the enormous resources such as Mattel had when it commanded its Japanese engineers to begin construction on Barbie in 1958 and 1959, the Barbie wannabes that came to market were made of cheaper materials in both the weight of body vinyl and clothes. While #1 and #2 Barbie were, frankly, close imitations of the earlier German Bild Lilli doll, they were constructed of heavier vinyl and rooted hair that stood the test of time. But the clone dolls that began to flood the market in the 60s use cheaper vinyl; they truly look and were mass produced with seam lines on legs and arms and residual vinyl sticking out from ankles and thighs in some cases. And they were shameless rip offs of Barbie; some of the clone’s makers marketed outfits that bore the same names as many of the iconic outfits created for Barbie! At least Barbie had her own wardrobe of high quality fabrics from 1959 to 1966: satins, brocade, silks, chiffon, cotton, and knits with tiny buttons and lace hem tape. When you examine one of the iconic 900 series outfits now, you cannot imagine any toy company, Mattel included, making that level of commitment to quality today that you see in those outfits.
So who were the Clones? Typically they were 11.5 inch “fashion dolls” with faces that either were an attempt to resemble Bild Lilli, with arched brows and heavy black eyeliner encircling her black-and-white irises, or Barbie. The Lilli clones were dolls like Uneeda’s Wendy (1962) with a hole in the back of her head (!), one of the most plentiful of the clones today, (another clone named Wendy, harder to find, was manufactured by Elite Creations); also Miss Babette and Annette, both from Eegee Toys (1963) with PMA (Plastic Molded Arts) offering Debby; Australia’s Suzy, Bonnie and Miss Marlene by Marx Toys; MaryLou and Babs from Fab-lu. Europe’s contribution to the clones was Plasta Petra and Japan checked in with Genevieve while Hong Kong’s Davtex sold Suzette. The list goes on and on. It probably does not need to be pointed out that none of these dolls are still sold today; Barbie wiped them all out, including her closest American competitor, Tressy, from American Character Toys in 1964, who attempted to up the ante on Barbie by giving little girls a doll with hair that “grew” out of hole in Tressy’s head so it could be combed in a variety of styles. At least American Character tried to offer a different-looking doll than Barbie with her individual face and hair styles and the company sold an array of outfits with tiny accessories (a passport, champagne glasses, toy dog, tiny school books) much like those offered with vintage Barbie ensembles. Still, even Tressy is made of much lighter weight plastic and simpler face paint and her secondary market price reflects that: a mint 1964 Tressy in box can be purchased today for well under $200 while the #1 Barbie in her TM box changes hands for anywhere from $4000 to $6500 depending on her condition and accessories (for instance, a #1 Barbie stand itself, relatively rare, sells for over $1000 on eBay these days).
The Barbie clones have blue-and-white eye color, like vintage Barbies did from 1960 onward. Many of the clones come with hair styled with a swirl ponytail or bubble cut “bouffant” hair style, also like Barbie. However, unlike Tressy, there was not a tagged line of outfits made for the cheap clone dolls, as far as I can tell. I have found some outfits out there, reportedly “clone” outfits, but without tags and clearly handmade or “Mommy made” when inspected. It can also be hard to locate a clone doll on eBay; nearly any doll that resembles Barbie or Lilli in any way, and who is 11.5 inches in length, is called a clone. There is not one dedicated site on eBay for the clones so it can be hard to find offerings when doing a search. I typically have used “Barbie clones” under the huge dolls category, or also “Bild Lilli” clones; sometimes they are found in the “Other Barbie dolls” subcategory or under “Vintage pre-1967” in the Barbie sites.
What is remarkable about all of these dolls is that none of Mattel’s competitors was able to come up with a higher quality fashion doll than Barbie; they, at best, hoped to duplicate her but seemed to put less of a priority on improving her, probably because they were unwilling to spend a lot of money on their imitations. Which, in and of itself, is curious, since the Barbie line has been such a profit center for Mattel over the years that making a similar high quality doll with lovingly designed outfits would have seemed to be a winning business model for Vogue or Madame Mademoiselle or American Character, who came the closest in grabbing market share from Barbie with its Tressy doll. Still, she was not Barbie and production was halted by 1965 or so. No one ever made a doll who offered serious competition to Barbie, yet it seems the little girls out there would have been willing to consider a doll of similar quality to Barbie. But no one really tried.
You can imagine how much competing toymakers wish they had been as bold as Ruth Handler had been in the late 50s when she had the vision to predict the exploding market share that a high-quality teenage fashion doll could harness. It is true that early Ginny toddler dolls remain extremely popular to this day, with mint dolls changing hands at doll shows in the $400 to $600 range. But none of these dolls would have the staying power or genuine allure that keeps prices for mint and/or rare vintage Barbies in the stratosphere. Barbie may be 57 years old, but she has never grown old -- or outdated --in the hearts of little girls and adult collectors.
One eBayer who listed her childhood Uneeda Wendy for sale on eBay, that I ended up buying recently, wrote in her listing that she always thought the doll was a Barbie when she was growing up; she even called the clone doll “Barbie”. It was only when she was an adult and showed the doll to a dealer that she was told it was not Barbie, but rather one of her many imitators. Still, she was loved as Barbie by the little girl who didn’t seem upset she had been fooled for most of her childhood. The clones were loved by their 1960s owners, but they never could knock Barbie off her throne; it would seem that the toy companies that made them did not even seriously try. The Attack of the Clones? Barbie barely noticed.
September 20, 2015
As collectors we can be obsessive. No surprise there. I sometimes glance around my doll room with dolls crowding every shelf in my cabinet and on the tops of cabinets and, with both astonishment and a certain degree of embarrassment, I think, “Oh my, I do have a lot of dolls. I should probably sell some of these. I mean, how many do I need?” As if we collectors ever have enough!
Even so, we rarely appraise just just how much we spend to indulge our endless appetites for vintage dolls and clothes – or, at least, I don’t. I justify my large outlays of cash by thinking, even though my dolls may not be investments guaranteed to increase in value, they are assets. Just try bidding on a particularly luscious #3 ponytail on eBay and see how quickly your leading bid can be eclipsed in the final seconds of an auction, causing your, say, $150 “high bidder” margin to turn into a $200 deficit. It happens; we’ve all shaken our heads when our “sure thing” suddenly slips away in the last moments and the doll goes to someone else. So yes: vintage Barbie is hot. And does that means that all the money we spend is okay? Well…. maybe. What is true is that these gorgeous and iconic dolls bring us so much joy and, in many cases, at least hold their value. There are worse ways to spend our days.
And, as many dolls as we might own -- depending on whether we cherish mint or played with dolls, NRFB outfits, Ponytail Barbie or TNTs -- there are always a few items/issues out there that represent what some cognoscenti call “the holy grail” of vintage collections. A doll or ensemble that is nearly impossible to find and which would be at the top of our “dream list” of vintage dolls. In other words, what would constitute your “top ten” list of the most coveted items out of all vintage Barbie collectibles out there (circa 1959 to 1969)?
Okay, I confess that I was unable to restrain my list to only ten dolls/ensembles. So my list will name my top twelve Barbies (plus one Tressy), accompanied by what I believe are the three rarest vintage outfits. It follows:
1) #1/#2 Barbie (blonde or brunette) hand painted, with cheek blush. Wow! I am salivating at the mere thought of owning one of these earliest 1959 ponytails with the darker, sharper and more angled eye paint and peachy cheek blush. Market estimate: $10,000 and upwards. And I am only guessing; I have never seen one at either a doll show or on eBay. (No box)
2) #1/2 Barbie (blonde or brunette) with stenciled face paint (and cheek blush). To be sure, these sophisticated beauties are, in no way, to be considered “poor relations” to the handpainted 1s or 2s; they are stunning and spectacular in their own right. Approximate market price: $4000 to $6500. (no box)
3) #1 Barbie stand with metal prongs, no chips. You rarely see these for sale on eBay; more often you’ll be offered a repro stand, if any stand at all, when you plunk down the big bucks to buy your #1. Market estimate: $1000 to $1500. (no box)
4) White Ginger Bubble Cut with pale, non-oxidized blonde hair and unfaded pink lips (no green!). One of these lovelies, with her original whitish blonde hair, is probably as close to platinum as you get with any of the vintage Barbies. Market Price: $500 to $750 (with box).
5) Midnight Color Magic, fully jet black with little or no oxidation to ruby red found anywhere in its hair, and those va-va-voom perfect raspberry lips and vibrant cheek blush. Just love these girls. My Midnight CM is one of my favorite dolls. She is breathtaking. Market Value (out of box): $1000 to $1500.
6) Midnight Japanese Side Part with raspberry lip paint and pink vinyl “skin”. I love the thinner faces and high color cheeks of this gorgeous issue. With or without hair string (of course, with original string adds value). Market value (estimate): $1600 to $2400. (no box)
7) Platinum Color Magic. With long, untrimmed very pale blonde hair, nearly champagne (but not “white” blonde). High color. With fully rooted hair, no thinning at crown. Be still my heart! These dolls are show stoppers. Market value (estimate): $800 to $1200. (no box)
8) Brownette Bubble Cut. Tight sable brown bubble. Very hard to find issue. Exquisite face of the earliest 1961 bubbles. No green. Retouched lips (the common way to find them). Market value: about $500 to $750. All original makeup would bring her value to about $1100. (no box)
9) Side Part American Girl (blonde or ash) with original coral lip paint. Blush is rare but, of course, adds value. The lighter, wheat blonde is harder to find and would raise her price by a few hundred dollars. Market value (estimate): $1400 to $1800.
10) Ash or Frosted Blonde Japanese Side Part with geranium lip paint, pink skin. Again, I love that thinner face! Usually can be found with the coveted hair string and original ribbon. Market value (estimate): $1500 to $2200.
11) Long Hair High Color American Girl (silver brunette is most cherished followed by two-tone blonde, silver ash, and cinnamon medium brown) with original cheek blush and flesh-toned facial vinyl (no darkening). Just love styling that long, luscious page boy. Definitely she is a crowd pleaser. Market value: $750 to $1200. A box would add $50 to $100, in my humble opinion.
12) “No Bangs” Francie. If you love Francie, this is the one you dream of at night. Blonde or brunette. I am not a Francie collector, but I have to admit the combed-back-from-forehead hair style with huge page boy is really lovely with its hair band. Not sure of current market value. I would say upwards of $500. Any Franciephile out there who can tell me?
13) Black (African American) Francie. Also a highly coveted doll for fans of Francie. Market value: I just saw one on eBay in what appeared to be very nice condition for $825.
14) “Sorbonne” outfit. Coveted. Very cool. This is what I would want to wear on my first day at college ! Very, VERY hard to find. Market value? $1500 ? I have no idea.
15) “Pan American Stewardess” outfit. Just a stunning ensemble for a silver brunette long hair American Girl. Market value: about $1000.
16) “Wedding Day Set” ensemble. Finding one without a tear in the netting at the center of neckline is hard, but possible. Complete with all accessories and mint. Market value: $150 to $200.
17) African American Tressy. Okay, okay, she is not a Barbie, but she is definitely a Barbie wannabe! A very rare find for Tressy fashion doll lovers. Market value: One sold for $372.00 this week on eBay (to me!)
"The Imitation Game": From Barbie to Tressy and Now Tammy
June 10, 2015
I thought the day would never come when I was scared by a fashion doll. But when I opened the shipping box and set my eyes upon the first Tammy I had ever bought (or ever seen), I gasped out loud, “She’s huge! Like a giant!” Her head was easily four times as big as Barbie’s and her feet were perhaps five times larger! With those disturbingly large and round “innocent” blue eyes and appealing high color cheeks, Tammy is about Barbie’s height, at 12 inches tall. But her head and torso dimensions are more akin to those of Little Miss Revlon. Or, as a Barbie friend of mine commented, “She’s like an overgrown child on steroids.”
I make that criticism with apologies extended to all you Tammy lovers out there; I am sure there are many, like my Connecticut neighbor and “sister” doll collector, Cindy Sabulis who wrote one of the most valued and popular Tammy reference books which is still available on eBay. Even so, Tammy’s oversized proportions were very disturbing and unattractive to my collector’s eye. And after I opened that first Tammy box, I was chagrined since I had already bid on, and won, four additional Tammys with different hair colors, and eight mint or near- mint outfits, complete with many adorable accessories. Now what was I going to do with all of them?
Well, sure, I probably should have at least looked at one of these very popular mid-60s Tammy dolls “in person” before committing my hard-earned cash to building a collection. But no, not me. What? Actually know something about what I was buying? I had resisted getting into Tammy over the past few months, after I expanded my fashion doll collecting from Barbie into Tressy, about whom I wrote in my last column. What struck me with Tressy was how much dolls were “queen” in the 50s and 60s, from Madame Alexander’s Cissy to Ginny to Miss Revlon and Betsy McCall. And fashion dolls most of all, once Barbie strutted down that runway upon her launch in March 1959. Barbie attained instant rock star status, despite all the brouhaha about her large breasts and tiny waist and even teenier feet. And guess what? There are stranger dolls out there from those two decades, from a gender viewpoint: Little Miss Revlon looks like a 12-year-old and yet she wears very high heels and also has breasts, albeit smaller than those Barbie proudly sports, and she had her own wedding dress -- since when do pre-teens get married?. And American Character’s Toni, even though she has a very sweet and girlish face, also comes dressed in a lacy one-piece camisole and she also has smaller breasts. Arguably the most popular toddler doll, Ginny, even had a wedding dress made for her as well (no breasts, thankfully!) in the 50s. What were doll makers trying to say with all these gender-specific contradictions? That they were little girls but also emerging teenage models? Really?
Even so, Tammy was a real contender upon her issuance in 1962 . Ideal was trying to jump on the fashion doll bandwagon by issuing a doll like Barbie, but without Barbie’s “negatives” (at least as claimed by those resistant mothers of girls in the late 50s who were repelled by Barbie’s very female proportions - her, as I call it, “va-va-va-voom” killer body. Let’s be honest: Victoria’s Secret’s models have nothing on a #1 Ponytail or a mint long-haired American Girl Barbie!) Tammy was given a chubby face but also one with lots of cheek blush. I, for one, am drawn to the enduring high color feature of Tammy dolls; it’s nearly impossible to find one without her original high color face paint. She, like Barbie and Tressy, also had side-glancing, coquettish eyes. But the iconic Tammy has shortish curly hair (some of the dolls had flips and bangs) and really offered no new feature, beyond her unthreatening figure. She wasn’t endowed with the shapely body of Barbie, nor the similarly curvy proportions of Tressy, who had the added attraction of being given a shock of hair that could be pulled out of the top of her head to allow little girls the ability to fashion new hair styles for her. (Magic Make Up Tressy/Mary dolls also had a remarkably plain face that you could make up with color sticks that American Character offered with the doll). Gimmicks that Ideal hoped might draw some of the legions of Barbie collectors into the American Character ranks. I think that Tammy -- as the newest “imitation doll” since she, like Tressy, was also a blatant rip off of Barbie -- was created to appeal to those mothers who found Barbie too “sexy” with Tammy’s thicker waist, and “girl-next-door” face. She was cute, if oversized, but not beautiful, by any stretch of the imagination.
But here’s the thing: Tammy has very articulated, if small, breasts, with clearly-defined nipples. Whoa! What is this? I mean, it’s a relative rarity to find a Barbie with a so-called “nipple” body and rarely does that mean you see defined nipples; more often there are just small, circular bulges at the end of the breasts. With Tammy, there is absolutely no doubt that what you see on each doll’s chest is a very pointed tip on the nipple. She may look in most cases like an “overgrown child on steroids”, but that’s only until you undress her from her very childlike one-piece turquoise playsuit. Then, look out! What is Ideal, through its blockbuster Tammy doll, trying to say to mothers and their little girls? That the doll represents youth, even childhood, but also is an emerging vixen, like Babs or Tressy? I mean, Ideal must have thought, “We are not making a doll like that ‘tart’ Barbie, but we do want to ride the wave of popularity enjoyed by the parade of fashion dolls that followed Barbie. We, Ideal, also want to depict young adulthood with our doll’s large array of outfits” that would befit a teenage doll, and just like those that Barbie and Tressy also were given. (Even early Barbie never looked like any teenager I ever knew; not until 1967 when mod Barbie replaced the sophisticated face of the ponytails, bubble cuts and American Girls did she begin to look like a teen.) Tammy outfits like “Pizza Party” and “School Daze” that sequed into fashions for college -“Campus Cutie” – and yet also of young womanhood like “Formal n’ Fur” or the conservative, but well-designed, blue brocade dress and jacket of “Dream Boat”. Even so, Ideal was clearly trying to keep as fans its legion of younger girls and their mothers who found Tammy to be less threatening since most of her outfits were more tailored towards early teenhood (nipples notwithstanding!) like “Skate Date”, “Phone Booth Tammy”, “Ring a Ding”, “Walking my Pet”, “Winter Weather”, and “Picnic Party”, to name a few. Ideal clearly was hedging its bets in trying to make its doll be all things for all children, and their moms, by 1963.
And, like Tressy, Ideal created an array of accessories, copying Mattel’s business model for Barbie, that would accompany each of Tammy’s outfits, from a transistor radio in its black carrying case, to a tiny plastic typewriter, to ice skates in their black Tammy case, to a hat box suitcase, to the pizza Tammy and her friends would enjoy at their “Pizza Party”. Ideal also offered a booklet with each doll and outfit that depicted all the different ensembles that children could buy for the dolls, with the same artistic designs and accompanying descriptive copy that Mattel created for Barbie and later American Character and Ideal did Tressy and Tammy. As with Tressy’s similar roll out, I am amazed that Mattel didn’t sock Ideal with a copyright infringement lawsuit. I guess Barbie was already so well entrenched in the doll world that Mattel wasn’t really threatened by the poseurs. But anyone who has studied Mattel’s history knows that the huge toy company didn’t take its success for granted and knocked off competitor after competitor in order to protect its brand throughout Barbie’s 56-year lifetime.
And it is true that both Tressy and Tammy were no longer made by the late 60s. Mattel may have lost the battle in not owning the only popular fashion doll on the toy market by 1964 but, in the end, it won the doll war. “Pink Box” Barbie is still sold today, even if lacking the glamour and high quality reflected in the earliest vintage Barbie dolls, while Tressy and Tammy are relegated to merely holding their own in the large secondary market for 1960s dolls on eBay. Barbie remains the queen of fashion dolls as reflected in her elevated eBay prices today. Which is to say, you can buy a mint, unplayed-with Tressy with original hair set for $100 today and a near-mint Tammy for, say, $150 or less, while a mint, #1 Barbie changes hands for upwards of $6000 and you can access an unplayed-with long hair American Girl Barbie in box for $1000. As the old advertisement said, what becomes a legend most?
(Ellen Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Posted on March 3, 2015
Okay, before you Ken lovers out there – and I imagine there must be a few of you so please identify yourselves now, because I can never find you on eBay when I have a Ken lot to sell -- cry foul, let me explain the context in which I use the term “unworthy”. I intend it in the sense of having less worth, ie: a lower price value, in particular when compared with vintage Barbie. No one shows Ken the money.
Ken Carson, the doll, issued a scant two years after Barbie Millicent Roberts exploded onto the scene in 1959, was, in all senses, an exact counterpart and companion doll for the Ponytail Barbie in his marketing and quality. The Ken doll came in an oblong cardboard box covered with designer graphics of his early outfits, as did vintage Barbie; he wore a red cotton swim trunks with yellow terry towel (well Babs wasn’t given a towel; perhaps she was meant to seductively pose in her beach chair wet after swimming, all the better to show off her delectable measurements?) and cork sandals with red plastic straps. He had a stand and a booklet within which were detailed the early 900-series outfits for both Barbie and Ken. And he, like Barbie, sold for $3.00.
Think of it: Our vinyl vixen must have been getting a bit bored standing all by herself in children’s doll cabinets by the early 60s. She needed a friend and Midge wouldn’t come along until 1963. I mean, she may have been dismissed by many moms as an immodest doll with those eye-popping measurements, infamous characteristics that overturned the doll world at the end of the staid 1950s when she first displayed them. But she was really out there all alone; no other doll had been like her before or, I would argue, since. Of course that is why she was such a success, too. And because she was such a blockbuster, with 350,000 dolls flying off store shelves in the first nine months after her issuance in March 1959, Mattel executives must have been rubbing their palms together, thinking “how can we capitalize on this huge stream of revenues?” I hate to be cynical but you can’t blame Mattel for wanting to keep those sales coming in, as they wondered what they could do to build on Barbie’s success? I mean, at some point, little girls would own more than enough Barbies, wouldn’t they? (Of course, most collectors today know there is never a point at which we say “enough!” but that’s a topic for another column!) So… wouldn’t Barbie need a boyfriend at some point? Thus, Ken was born.
Ken’s early outfits were of the same high quality and design as were the ponytail and bubble cut Barbie’s wardrobe. He had a tuxedo of polished cotton with satin lapels and a white cotton tuxedo shirt with tiny tucks in the front. Anyone who has ever sewn will attest to how difficult it was to create all this fine tailoring. He carried a corsage in a box to bring to Barbie for the prom. He had khaki slacks with a sporty red cap and yellow knit shirt with a set of keys for when he drove off in the Barbie Austin Healy, and a blue pin stripe baseball uniform with red trim to wear when he played first baseman on Mattel’s team; a gray suit with striped rep tie for his “Saturday Night Date”. Ken’s early outfits were made of cotton, satin, knits, corduroy -- no polyester for him (until quality of the mod dolls began to erode in the last 60s). The tailoring was as exquisitely designed and finished as were any of Barbie’s ensembles, and they were sold with the same number of imaginative accessories.
So. Why did Ken never reach the rock star status of the vintage Barbies? Why can you pick up a mint in box Ken, pristine, with tag, and unplayed with for, oh, under $250 now, over 50 years later, when the #1 Barbie (which is nearly impossible to find in unplayed with, MIB condition) can tip the scales at $6000 or more? Why does even Barbie’s first stand garner $1000 or more itself alone when Ken’s earliest wire stand is lucky to fetch $30? I think there are a few answers. Most children were drawn to Barbie’s glamour and dreamed of owning one of the iconic ponytails after her issuance. By 1961, they might have also been given a bubble cut, first issued that year at the same time as Ken’s debut. (I was given a blonde #4 ponytail as a child and a first-issue titian bubble cut. I also had a brunette flocked hair Ken and I do have fond memories of some of his outfits which I also owned.) But for most children of the 60s, Barbie was the draw; it was the ponytail Barbie onto whom children projected many of their dreams of growing up and fantasies of going out on dates in fancy outfits. Ken was merely an accessory, in a way; a very nice and high quality doll, but not Barbie. You could play with Barbie without a Ken; many little girls did, probably most of them. Ken was nice to have, but not required.
And here’s the thing: even little boys who were engaged in doll play as kids seemed to prefer GI Joe over Ken. Today I suspect that GI Joe sells for much more than vintage Ken, though I do not collect either so am unable to seal my argument with hard dollars. But from what I have observed at doll shows and from conversations with male collectors, this seems to be true, or at least the interest level is greater. Oh that beard! Those bulging muscles! Physically, Joe leaves Ken in the dust. At one N.J. show, I arrived at one booth just as a fellow collector was shoveling about ten GI Joes in a bag after buying out the dealer’s stash. Once again, I don’t any women collectors who covet GI Joe (despite that oh-so-masculine bod!) but he does seem to attract the majority of collectors who want a male counterpart to Barbie. Poor Ken! Even with that cool red cap to wear while driving in his sports car, and his fun green swimming fins, snorkel and mask, or his very trendy two-toned brown and white loafers, he doesn’t get many swoons. But he’s not a simmering hunk like Joe with that sculpted bod; he’s not at all risky or bad . He is just a nice guy and I guess that, even in the doll world, it’s true that nice guys do finish last.
It's the Ankles, Baby!
Posted January 24, 2015:
Within a year of her launch date at the New York Toy Fair in March 1959, Barbie’s skyrocketing appeal to little girls essentially drove her predecessors off toy shelves. This included the very popular Little Miss Revlon, a so-called teenage fashion model that always looked more like a child than an ingénue; American Character’s 10.5 inch Toni, with her appealing peachy complexion, side swept bangs and shoulder-length flip hairdo; Vogue’s Jill doll, as well as the Hollywood glamorous (and still elusive) Miss Coty doll, and even Cosmopolitan’s Miss Ginger. Even the blockbuster Ginny toddler doll, who arguably posed the biggest threat to Barbie in her legions of fans among children in the late 1950s, saw her sales take a beating as little girls shelved their Ginnys, shifting their allegiances to the more sophisticated, teenage fashion doll that Barbie embodied – even if more “fashion” than “teenage”.
But why did Mattel succeed so mightily in its marketing of this new and very controversial fashion doll – I know many women who were girls in 1959 whose mothers forbid them from buying the bosom-y Barbie -- in the middle of the very repressed “Mad Men” era? What was it about Barbie that clicked with young collectors? Much has been made of the doll’s appeal as embodying a future role model upon whom these young girls could project their future dreams for their own lives. This line of reasoning said that children imagined themselves becoming teenage girls in few years, and loved this new sophisticated doll who possessed such beautiful designer-inspired clothes that you could buy separately for play purposes. For whatever reasons, toddler and baby dolls like Betsy Wetsy and Tiny Tears were largely out of fashion by the early 1960s as they saw their sales plummet. Many of Barbie’s predecessors in the doll world were completely removed from toy stores as competing doll manufacturers determined they could not take on the steamroller that was, and remains, Barbie.
But Mattel was smart when it came up with its blueprint for Barbie and for that we can thank Barbie’s creator Ruth Handler, Mattel’s co-founder. Handler might have pointed to Germany’s Bild Lilli as the inspiration for her new vinyl protégé but, in fact, the original Barbie doll was made of much better quality materials than was the earlierLilli that helped the doll remain a durable plaything for more than 50 years. Just look at how many near mint-to-mint vintage Barbies can still be found on the internet and at doll shows even into the 21st century. It’s really remarkable that the earliest dolls have held up as well as they have, with many of their hairdos still keeping their original styling, even after numerous washings and combing since the early 60s. It was a shock to me when I first saw a Bild Lilli “in person” and noticed, frankly, how cheaply she was made, with rubbed makeup, mussed up mohair wigs, and arms and legs comprised of lightweight and brittle plastic. Lilli, in fact,is very fragile in her construction and certainly is rarely found in anywhere near mint condition. She is not nearly as glamorous or as solidly constructed a doll as is vintage Barbie, nor do her clothes enjoy the same attention to detail seen in the couturier designs created for Barbie with their tiny buttons, lace hem facings, real fur trim, and manufactured of stunning fabrics like taffeta, brocade, satin, silk, and velvet. And the outfits always exhibited such wonderful tailoring.
But, for me, it is the little details that creators included on the doll itself that make her so special and which spotlight Mattel’s commitment to authenticity and quality when it created the first Barbies. (Unfortunately that devotion to high quality was something the company sadly abandoned by the end of the 60s, beginning with the mod line in 1967). Case in point: just look at Barbie’s ankle. It is so beautifully crafted with a tiny bone visible on the outside of her ankle. So feminine and also revealing the degree to which Mattel was committed to creating a doll that would exhibit all the real biological features of a young woman. Then there are, of course, the notorious breasts molded for Barbie as yet another representation of young womanhood; the original breasts even having greater nipple detailing in the dolls crafted on the assembly line in Japan until Mattel decided that such a biological detail might be too unsettling to the “innocent” children in America. (Uh oh, another “wardrobe malfunction”, indeed!) And who cares about Barbie’s impossibly tiny waist line anyway? Do you know of any vintage collector who has ever found her itsy bitsy circumference to be either strange or objectionable? We collectors are more enraptured with the high quality of the dolls: the individually painted (or seemingly so) facial features, the designer-inspired ensembles, the lovely hair styling -- be that of the ponytails with a myriad of tiny curls in the bangs, or the layered, sporty bubble cut style, or the wildly popular page boys worn by the 1965-66 American Girls. These hair styles were largely untouched over the years; you can still wash and restyle any of these doll issues and reclaim a doll that looks remarkably like one who just came off the assembly line years earlier.
It is for all these reasons that Barbie endured. Just compare the numbers of vintage dolls and outfits that are posted each day on eBay (vintage Barbie offerings totaling about 23,000, on January 8th) and consider how often you find your high bid overtaken in the last few seconds of an auction for the most coveted dolls -- even though seconds earlier it might have surpassed the then winning price by $200. Collectors love vintage Barbie for all these reasons. And it’s not just those women who were of doll-playing age when Barbies first hit toy shelves in the late 50s; there are thousands of women who were born in the years just before or after 1959 who had no childhood connection with the dolls but are avid collectors today. Because of her exotic and fabulous face – who else looks like a #3 Barbie? – and her variety of beautifully created hairstyles, as well as her stunning, high- quality ensembles that could be purchased for the doll both then and are still in near mint condition today.
But for me, it is also those delicate and adorable ankles, baby!
For the Non-Mint Minded: How Different Vintage Dolls Possess Different Flaws
Posted October 27, 2014
Here is a quote I saw on an eBay listing for a titian bubble cut this morning: “Other than having green ear on both ears, she is mint.” Oh really? So this seller thinks the dreaded green ear “disease”, apparent mostly on bubbles and later ponytails, is just a minor issue for a collector? That might be the worst, and least correctible, flaw that a vintage Barbie can suffer, other than an outright tear in the vinyl. It’s like saying, “Other than having no legs, the man walked perfectly.” It’s amazing what a wide array of deteriorating conditions can understandably exist on these aged dolls and yet a seller still calls them mint.
Misleading appraisals aside, what has really fascinated me since I became an active vintage Barbie collector after the internet was created in the mid 1990s, affording collectors access to, literally, an entire universe of vintage dolls that previously had remained unclaimed in dusty toy warehouses or hidden in the attics of their original owners, is how the array of vintage issues can exhibit such different types of flaws – or none at all – after the passage of more than fifty years. And, for the record, if you find a doll with any of these flaws, they are not mint, or even near mint. Flaws matter; flaws detract from a doll’s value. Period. The adjective “mint” characterizes a doll that has not been played with or is, at a minimum, pristine, with hair usually in its original set, and with untouched original lip and eye paint, no rubs. No toe nips, no broken knees on bend legs issues, no hair cuts. And yes, no green.
The most common issues -- green ear, neck splits, nose nips, fading or missing makeup – are not universal afflictions seen in every vintage doll. For example, #1s to #3s rarely possess any green ear; if they do, it is typically confined to a small dot immediately inside the earring hole. Also, the lip paint is usually intact, and not rubbed, on the earliest ponytails. For some reason, they retain in many, if not all cases, their original red lip paint and usually in the original outline. Heads were not, in my experience, as commonly snapped on and off their bodies, as you see with the bubble cuts or later ponytails, so neck splits on the 1s to 3s are also fairly uncommon. However, when they were, it resulted in even greater damage to the doll in a broken neck knob, next to impossible to repair unless you are an extremely talented vintage “engineer”.
However, many, if not almost all, of the earliest ponytails now possess a ghostly pallor since the first type of vinyl chosen by Mattel for the dolls heads and bodies has faded to ivory in the 55 years since the 1s to 3s were manufactured. And the fading is not uniform; some 1s have more peachy- toned torsos or darker legs while the face and shoulders have changed to the ivory or near white-hued vinyl.
Bubble cuts, issued first in 1961, on the other hand often acquire green ear after the metal in the earring post reacted with the particular vinyl used in making the doll’s head, creating over the passage of years a green stain that circled the earring hole. I have also seen green ear on other parts of a vintage doll’s head or body; for instance, I once bought an otherwise mint #4 blonde at a doll show that had a tiny dot of green on the front of her neck. I can only assume the doll laid in its box for years with a loose earring somehow touching its neck, producing the green. Most of the highly coveted brownette bubbles have been afflicted with at least some green ear; even worse, the greasy face vinyl used in the 1961 dolls often made virtually all their face paint slide off the face over the years. That is why it is extremely rare to find a brownette with its original face paint; they are almost all at least partially retouched.
Swirl ponytails, which came on the Barbie scene in 1964, are the most common dolls that have been struck with green ear syndrome; in fact, it is hard to find a swirl with no green ear at all (and if you do, hold onto her!) and often it results in a fairly sizable circular stain around the ear. Swirls often exhibit a very wide stance between the legs on their Midge Barbie bodies, too, which is less often seen in the bubbles or the “regular” ponytails with curly bangs.
In my experience, it is also hard to find a Fashion Queen wigged doll with either green ear or rubbed lips. You will see the term “high color” on listings of Fashion Queens referring to dolls that retain some visible cheek blush, but it is uncommon (and about the only characteristic that makes FQs desirable for many collectors, in my opinion). American Girls issued in 1965 - the so-called “short hair” AGs - almost always have lips that have faded over the years to a lemon or “buttery”shade from their original coral shade, while the more highly coveted 1966 “long hair” AGs almost always have intact geranium or raspberry lip paint (except for the “low color” long hairs, that have pale coral lips, and could be faded to more pale than coral). American Girls, long or short haired, never have green ear because they were not manufactured with earrings; that is, of course, unless some young child decided to pierce the ears herself! Neck splits can be found on any doll, but most often on bubbles or later ponytails (1961 through 64).
Of course the explanation behind why some dolls have, say, green ear or not is because Mattel constantly changed the type of vinyl it used to manufacture different issues (and you have to wonder, what was all that switching of plastics from year to year about?) It is interesting, too, that other 1950s teenage dolls did not suffer similar afflictions. For example, the Little Miss Revlon dolls, who held court in the doll world from 1958 to 1960 when Barbie knocked them off toy store shelves, only exhibit a tiny circle of green, if at all, immediately around the earring hole, hardly a problem. And they usually are still found with their original metal-posted drop pearl earrings in place so the green does not appear to get significantly worse over the years. Good thing since it is nearly impossible to remove the earrings without damaging the doll’s ear lobe since the ends of the posts are curved into a hook inside the doll’s head so they tear at the vinyl if you try to remove them. Also, LMR’s lips are usually intact, with no rubs to their trademark red hue and she was issued with deep “fever” cheek blush or with uncolored cheeks. On the other hand, American Character’s 10.5 inch tall Toni almost always still has cheek blush as well as her pink lips and the doll is renowned for her trademark “peaches-and-cream” complexion. Manufactured without earrings, she also has not had to endure the slings and arrows of the dreaded “green stain illness” often suffered by Barbie.
Some differences among the different vintage issues, however, are actually attributes adding to a doll’s value. For example, it is not unusual to find some cheek blush remaining on the earliest ponytails while most later ponytails, most bubble cuts, and the 1965 American Girls have lost that exquisite facial accent over the years. However, I have this year located two raven bubbles who still possess vestiges of their original cheek blush. Teresa has mentioned she also has some bubbles with facial blush. And of course vibrant facial coloring is still a major selling point for the high color Color Magics (1966 – 67), who also almost universally have retained their luscious geranium lip color, while cheek blush is less often seen on the so-called high color long-haired American Girls of 1966, even though they usually do not exhibit fading in their original raspberry lip paint.
One thing is certain, when it comes to vintage Barbie collecting, there is a little something for everyone at every price level and sometimes buying a flawed doll can save you considerable money. Especially if you can tolerate a small dollop of green on a bubble’s ear or a professional retouch of a short-haired American Girl’s lips.
Posted Sept. 2014
When my mother bought me my first fashion doll, in about 1957, she was Little Miss Revlon, a 10 ½-inch tall vinyl doll, chunkier in build than the yet-to-be-issued Barbie, with dark blonde saran hair that you could wash, comb, and curl without fear of damaging the doll’s hair. “Rooted hair!” my mom exclaimed. “That is the best thing to happen to dolls in years.” My mother’s generation -- if they, of the Depression Era, owned dolls at all – played with early “composition” dolls made of compressed material that would later chip and crack, damaging its glaze (at best) and (at worst) often causing the doll to lose a nose or finger. My mom might also have pointed out that the 50s dolls made of vinyl were also a vast improvement over the dolls of the 30s to late 40s. The new dolls were virtually indestructible, with painted facial features and metal earrings, as well as the rooted hair that revolutionalized doll play by the end of the decade.
The Fifties ushered in the era of the fashion doll, as first seen in Madame Alexander’s highly collectible 21-inch Cissy doll who was a coveted fixture of the doll market from 1955 until 1960. Until the mid 50s, most dolls were baby dolls (Ginnette, Little Genius, Betsy Wetsy and Tiny Tears) or toddler dolls, such as Vogue’s extremely popular Ginny and Nancy Ann’s Muffie dolls, made of brittle, hard plastic with body seams that could separate and chip as the dolls aged. They were each about eight inches tall and possessed bodies “strung” together with elastics affixed to metal bars. Their hair was of a mohair composition and glued onto their heads, allowing for little rearranging from their manufactured hair style during play time.
But as coveted as vintage Ginny dolls are, dating back to the first years of the 50s, they pre-dated the fashion dolls that would devour the doll market by 1960. They were little toddler dolls, and most of their clothes were created as clothes little girls would wear, between the ages of, say, four and seven. They were well tailored clothes – pinafores, lace, plaid skirts for school, pretty party dresses – made of taffeta, cotton, and voile. But what I find very strange is that Vogue also designed ball gowns and bridal dresses for Ginny. These had veils and bouquets, they were created as Ginny’s bride’s gown and it was never suggested they were for “pretend” play or dress up. What real-life toddler or little girl requires a bride’s dress? Perhaps the fact that the dolls had clothes that were “older” than the appropriate demographic for the doll itself was a way of setting the doll up for the transition into the parade of fashion dolls that would soon be introduced to the doll world by the middle of the decade.
In 1955 Madame Alexander introduced the stunningly beautiful Cissy doll, 20 to 21 inches tall with a mohair wig and hard plastic body, jointed at the elbows and knees. She was an immediate hit but was priced on the expensive side for most parents of the day. The highly esteemed Madame A. had not yet faced the reality that the Ideal Toy Company of Hollis NY was breathing down its neck as the latter was on the verge of marketing the much less expensive Miss Revlon dolls, in a myriad of sizes ranging from 18 to about 24 inches tall. Charles Revson, head of Revlon cosmetics, lent his company’s name to the new dolls created by Ideal when demographics showed the sizable number of baby boomers who were approaching pre-teen years by the late 50s. What better way to get those girls’ willingness to choose his company’s cosmetics later on than to put its name on the fashion dolls Ideal envisioned bringing to market? And so he did.
Then just two years before Mattel created what would become the doll world’s biggest blockbuster, Barbie (1959), Ideal sold its own almost Barbie sized (10 ½ inches) fashion doll, the adorable Little Miss Revlon. She had rooted saran hair, was posable with a twist waist, had sleep eyes, and arched feet for the high heels she wore. But the doll has a child-like face which looks, well, a bit creepy, or at least strange, on a doll with (like Barbie) vinyl breasts and who was sold wearing a girdle (not even a panty girdle but its forerunner!) and brassiere. What was she, a collector might reasonably ask? A child or a teenager or a 20-something? You could argue that Ideal sent a mixed message, for sure, in its LMR issue. Though very popular when she appeared on toy store shelves in 1957, and with a number of outfits that would be purchased separately, LMR frankly lacked the elegance and sophistication of the vintage Barbies that were sold from 1959 until 1967. Her face was girlish, and her hair was typically styled in a short ponytail, making her seem a bit weird on top of a body with breasts (although admittedly they were smaller than Barbie’s va-va-voom “protuberances”.)
In short, the glamorous and sultry Barbie, with her heavy lidded eyes, dark turquoise eye liner, and smoky shadow, never looked anything like a young girl; she didn’t even look like a teenager, despite her marketing campaign. She was exotic, sophisticated, and drop dead gorgeous. No wonder the still collectible Little Miss Revlon dolls gradually faded from the doll world by 1960. With Mattel issuing three different ponytail Barbies in her first full year out of the gates, she clearly knocked all competition off toy shelves, and there was no doubt she was here to stay, the leader of the doll pack since that day in early March 1959.
Was Little Miss Revlon ever in a serious position to take on Barbie, once our Vintage Vixen stunned the doll world at the New York Toy Fair in March 1959? Little Miss Revlon was cute, if a little puzzling in her child/woman likeness, and is still very collectible. But her price in the secondary market today is hundreds, even thousands, of dollars below that of the original Barbies. She was, admittedly a fashion doll two years ahead of Barbie and, like Barbie, she had a wardrobe of outfits that could be purchased separately. But LMR did not have any haute couture fashions, and I don’t think I have to qualify that assessment. She had nothing remotely similar to “Enchanted Evening”, “Evening Splendor”, “Black Magic”, “Easter Parade”, or “Saturday Matinee”. None of her outfits were timeless, such as those mentioned, as was most of Barbie’s extensive vintage wardrobe, every ensemble from “Suburban Shopper” to “Gold n’ Glamour”. Most of LMR’s dresses, from her travelling series to her pinafores to her rather basic cotton dresses, were rather dated in their prints and not in any way “high fashion” while Barbie was always about fashion. Heck, Barbie even had her personal designer team to create her wardrobe before she was a fixture on toy shelves. Barbie hit the ground running when she was released that March and within a year, even the popular Little Miss Revlon was fading fast in the hearts of little girls across America. Barbie never looked back. She didn’t have to. It was not even close.
Very Vintage Vantage/July 29, 2014
By Ellen Taylor
Why do some collectors crave “never-removed-from-box” vintage Barbies? Why are so many of us only interested in mint dolls or clothes? I mean, Barbies were always sold as toys, not collectibles. They were played with by millions of children in the 60s, daily and for years. So, is it reasonable, or even possible, to expect to find a 55-year old toy in pristine condition?
The simple answer is: yes.
When I began collecting Barbies, I was about 10 and Barbie had been on the market for just a year. I am not sure why I was never given a #1 ponytail as a child since I was at prime Barbie age when she hit toy store shelves in March 1959. But then again, within a few months, the #1 quickly evolved into the #2 since Mattel had received complaints of the potential for injury with small children handling the metal spikes that affixed the first doll to her hard plastic stand. Then the #3 ponytail squeezed her way onto the scene also in 1959 after Mattel abandoned the vampire-like black and white eyes of the 1s and 2s for the softer blue-eyed look of the #3 and later ponytails. My point is that maybe by the time my mother got around to allowing me to have a Barbie -- which was a controversial decision when our vinyl vixen first came on the scene; many mothers nixed the idea of their daughters owning such a “sexy” doll – it was 1960 and the #4 ponytails were the ones mostly available at toy stores.
I lost my two original Barbies (a #4 blonde ponytail and a #1 brunette flocked-hair Ken, followed by a first-issue titian bubble cut in 1961) in 1973. So for years, I pined for my lost vintage Barbies , though, of course, no one used the term “vintage” in the 70s or 80s. I finally found a somewhat beaten up brunette #6 ponytail lying in a dusty bowl in an antique shop in 1986 and quickly snatched her up. No box, in fair condition, at best, but still a vintage Barbie.
An aside: That was always the conundrum about the earliest Barbies during the 20 years following their 1959 launch date: they were too recently issued to be considered “antiques”, yet too old to be lingering on storeroom shelves in most toy stores by the 1980s. It is a different story in California where it seems former Mattel workers snatched up many of the unsold vintage dolls that had been replaced by the mod and then the Malibu and Superstar Barbie lines; I suspect that’s the reason you can still find so many NRFB or mint dolls online now and often from sellers in California. I bet you could find the earlier ponytails and bubble cuts on toy shelves on the west coast much longer than you could in most other parts of the United States. But it’s a bigger mystery to me why these former Mattel employees and their families would know to keep a “new” 1960 doll for 40 to 50 years. Why would they know, or even suspect, that what had always been a toy when it was first sold would rise to the lofty price levels now seen on eBay as MIB dolls attained the rock star status they currently enjoy?
After I located that first brunette ponytail, I began to find a vintage doll, and its 900 series outfits, here and there, mostly at consignment shops. This was in the late 80s and early 90s. Oh boy, do I remember the adrenalin rush I would experience when I would spot an old doll at an antique store. My heart would actually beat faster and I would then begin to negotiate a selling price with the shop owner. None of these dolls were mint or in boxes, however, but they were vintage so I was elated to reclaim dolls like the ones that was been in my lost collection. Then the internet became a major focus of our day-to-day lives by the mid 90s, allowing us to greatly expand our collections while also depleting our bank accounts (ouch).
At the beginning I was overjoyed to find any vintage Barbies online; I never looked for, or expected, to find mint dolls. I knew these were toys and not items that were hoarded in expectation of them becoming valuable collectibles over time. So I bought my first American Girl (ash blonde with the thinner face) and Color Magic, whose over-the-top brash yellow hair color was a bit shocking the first time I saw one. I bought back “twins” of the three dolls I had lost in the 70s – and perhaps 125 more! The internet was perhaps the biggest boon to collectors, allowing us global access to a enormous range of dolls and clothes that had always been out there but we previously had no way of knowing where they were or how to buy them.
So in the 90s I never bought mint or NRFB items; I display my dolls and love to dress them, so I could see no reason to buy “like new” dolls. And these were, of course, 35- to 40-year old toys by then so I didn’t expect to find them in unplayed-with condition. I knew I had played constantly with my own Barbies as a young girl so couldn’t imagine that everyone who was a child in 1960 would not have done the same thing. How many childhood friends did you know who had received a Barbie as a gift and then merely placed them on an upper shelf in their closet, forever to be untouched and unplayed with? It was unthinkable.
And so I bought plenty of those so-called “damaged” dolls in the old days after eBay came on the scene in about 1996. For some reason, most of my favorite dolls have some flaw or sign of play, if not the worst detractors of a doll’s value like trimmed hair, green ear, or nipped noses. Matter of fact, if I happened to buy a doll in its box, I would almost always sell off the box to other collectors who I knew wanted them. I didn’t want to stash a boxed doll out of sight in a drawer. I wanted to play with my dolls and keep them on a shelf where I could admire and enjoy them every day. For the most part, I still feel that way.
However. Eighteen years later, I must admit that something has changed. I discover I am now enchanted by a pristine doll still in her original box with stand and shoes, her booklet in cello. I guess it makes me feel like I’ve taken a trip in a time machine, perhaps, and have gone back to the days when I could walk to my local toy shop and find a brand new, perfect Barbie for sale there for $3.00 (or less since you now find so many boxed dolls with discounted price tags on them from their early days lingering on the Rexall Drug Store shelf). It is so magical to see these dolls I have always loved, with all their exotic elegance and artistically painted faces, looking like new 55 years later. In some cases, with issues I never knew about as a child, it’s like I am getting a second chance to buy dolls I never had the chance to buy when I was 10 years old, like American Girls or Color Magics, because they hadn’t been manufactured yet.
Maybe this is just a natural evolution in collecting. I already have so many truly gorgeous dolls, some with a tiny dollop or more of green ear or retouched lips and others that are near mint; I love them all. Perhaps this new preoccupation with buying Mint in Box just represents the next logical step for a collector. Whatever the reason, I find it a real thrill to find a nearly perfect doll that has seen no, or very little, play time, some with original cheek blush and untouched hair. And suddenly I wish I hadn’t sold off all those boxes I dumped years ago. While I love to display most of my dolls in whatever 900 or 1600 outfit I choose for them, I am more drawn now to keeping a mint doll in her box, with stand behind her. Maybe in this way way I can pretend that those days of getting a new Barbie merely involved a walk to your local toy or drug store with $3 clutched in your hand are still with us (though now the $3 doll of yore has evolved into the $500 doll now. If only!)
Even so, it still astonishes me that you can find so many of these hardly or never played-with dolls today. Why were so many new dolls removed from toy shelves back then, especially when you consider Barbie has always led the parade as bestseller in the global doll market ? That question -- where do all these MIB dolls come from anyway -- is a mystery and fodder for a broader discussion among vintage collectors.
Posted on May 29, 2014
After the internet exploded onto the scene in the mid 1990s, it became possible for collectors to access a king’s ransom of vintage dolls, from Barbie to Madame Alexander to Betsy McCall, that had previously been unavailable -- or unknown -- to them. Which is to say, these early Barbie dolls were already out there -- on old toy shelves (perhaps, but that couldn’t have been many), in attics, in the corners of children’s (now grown up) closets. But with the internet’s creation (yes, even before eBay hung out its shingle at the end of 1996), a collector in Oregon could locate the seller of a particular doll, say a 1965 wheat blonde American Girl Barbie , in Florida and an exchange could be made. Suddenly buyers could access sellers, from Indiana to Italy, and deals were rapidly accomplished that made it possible for collectors to locate nearly any Barbie doll that was sold 35 to 40 years earlier. Frankly, it was a heady feeling for grown up doll lovers looking to replenish lost collections.
Take my case in point: when I was a child in the early 60s, I owned two Barbies (one #4 blonde and a #1 titian bubble) and one Ken (a flocked- hair brunette) doll and maybe fifteen 900 series outfits. Over the intervening years, I lost them all due to some friends’ marauding children who got into my doll trunk and made off with my dolls after I had gone to live in my single-room apartment, affording no doll storage, in New York City. Then even as I entered my 30s I, well, still pined for my lost collection but felt trying to recover them would be hopeless. Suddenly in the early days of the internet, “listserve” sites blossomed where people could exchange information on virtually everything -- from remedies for illnesses they suffered to collectibles. Until the early 90s, I had not been aware that Mattel had ever created a redhead ponytail until I saw one at a local vintage doll store. Soon that one sold and by then I had decided I had to have one for my own small, but growing, collection. I found a seller in Texas who had posted a #5 titian ponytail for sale and arranged to buy her.
In a couple of years the Barbie Board on AOL had been created by collectors and quickly grown by leaps and bounds. There a relatively large number of us early internet collectors could post restoration tips as well as lists of dolls we wanted to find or had to sell. Descriptions sufficed; deals were made without photographs, fees, or the benefit of eBay credit protection. You read a description and bought the doll; I don’t recall very many problems back then; there were some troublemakers but not a lot. I would attend a doll show in the adjoining state and buy, say, three dolls on a weekend day. That night after I came home, I would list a couple of my old dolls for sale and they immediately sold. Immediately, based only on my description. As a result, I would make $1000 in a matter of two hours, thereby covering the money I had spent earlier that day at the doll show. I have to repeat this for those who have only known the world of collecting through the eBay universe: we had to pay no fees for selling or buying, no Paypal existed for settling transactions, and yes, we also had no hard-and-fast credit protection. Our deals were based on reputation and personal experience. We actually became a fairly close-knit community of vintage collectors and formed friendships and trading relationships through our communal love of vintage Barbies. Then AOL disbanded the Barbie boards as we knew them and reinstated a new business model wherein they took a share of the revenues that were negotiated on their site. They realized what a good deal we all had and did some quick arithmetic to glean some idea of the enormous vintage pie from which they might be able to carve a piece.
That led to eBay being launched and that “friendly” community of vintage AOL Barbie lovers now had to be absorbed into a much larger universe of offerings of dolls and accessories. Somehow it wasn’t as much fun after eBay was born and became our collecting “referee” and I still get a remarkably warm feeling when I realize I have just done a transaction with someone I knew back in the old days on AOL. And of course, the size of the market for Barbie deals expanded exponentially as the market drew buyers and sellers from around the globe, with eBay and Paypal now taking their own extremely lucrative cut out of our bottom lines. It was a no brainer for AOL, eBay and its offspring Paypal. Money talks. This now became the way we collected. Why buy a #1 ponytail from a seller you meet on Craigslist when you might be getting a repainted #3 ponytail fronting as “the real thing” and you have no recourse for reimbursement after the seller grabs your cash and disappears through the subway turnstile? Once the market for vintage Barbies exploded beyond dealings between friendly fellow collectors, you really needed some credit protection and likewise, eBay needed to give buyers reassurance in order to develop its universe of buyers and sellers.
I will say that one happy side effect of eBay is that vintage prices have softened for the high end dolls since the late 90s. That could be due to the fact there are so many more dolls available in the global marketplace that is eBay; it could be due to the technology boom having inflated prices in the late 90s. But I remember when #1 Barbies in their box with stand sold for $10,000 in the 90s; without box or stand, probably at $5000. Number 2s changed hands in the neighborhood of $3500 without box and maybe at $4000 to $5000 if a box/stand were included. Long hair, high color American Girls used to enjoy a price tag of about $1000 for excellent to near mint dolls; I remember I got an extremely long-haired Cinnamon AG which still remains one of my favorite dolls from a collector in Canada by sending the seller two dolls, a bubble cut and a swirl, in exchange. I also bought the most gorgeous two-toned blonde LHAG with a slight trim to the bottom row of hair plugs in back at the Barbie Convention in the summer of 1997, totally covered by upper layers, for $800. I still have both of those dolls in my collection. Now you can find a very nice LHAG with few flaws for under $400 on eBay and all-original #1 ponytails without boxes now can be had for about $3000.
Not that this drop in prices, facilitated by the exploding size of the secondary Barbie market from 2000 to 2014, has resulted in any of us collectors letting go of substantially fewer dollars from our annual vintage budgets. If only that were so! I don’t think I am alone when I concede that I just buy more dolls now. Over the years since the late 90s, I have been able slowly to fill out my collection with dolls so that there are really no issues that I do not now own from my vintage “wish list”. But that is also because there are just so many more dolls out there that enjoyed no marketplace until the internet was developed. And I will say that, having worked most of my life in the Wall Street markets, I am a huge admirer of the liquidity and safety of the eBay doll market. It affords collectors not only a venue to access desired dolls but also a reliable marketplace where doll assets can easily be converted to cash, what is called “liquidity”. Sellers basically bear no risks on eBay; you don’t ship a doll to a buyer until the money she is worth is in your account. Buyers don’t really expose themselves to getting stuck with fraudulent dolls either since eBay essentially offers them back-up repayment for nearly any reason if a doll they receive is not what they thought they were buying. All markets need to gain the confidence of both parties to a transaction if they are to attract participants, and you need a broad and deep market with many players in order to most efficiently price a collectible asset. Despite its often hefty cost of doing business, eBay works and has been successful because it offers a huge marketplace where collectors are able to buy and sell easily and quickly. Not that I wouldn’t happily redirect my buying and selling to a smaller collecting platform, if we could only resurrect the old AOL Board…. (just kidding ?).
Posted on May 1, 2014 on ofbondsandblondes
Okay, we vintage collectors can all come clean and admit it: How many of your fellow doll obsessives actually own a Miss Barbie, that truly scary looking Mattel creation of 1964, Barbie doll’s fifth year on the earth? But then you have to ask why the doll’s very earthbound corporate creator devised a Barbie doll who looked more like a Martian than a California girl?
For the unanointed, Miss Barbie was a new incarnation in the Barbie line with knees that bent and weirdest of all, sunken eyes that would open and close. For hairstyling, no long and flowing blonde or raven locks pulled back into a ponytail. No black and white “zebra” swim attire for her. Miss Barbie sported a more modest hot pink one piece suit with a short ruffled skirt to shade her upper thighs, not a strapless number like that worn by her early Barbie sisters. And on her head she wore what appeared to be a bathing cap with a pink mop on top.
No kidding, Miss Barbie was the original “mop top” — and maybe that is because she came off the Mattel drawing board and onto toy store shelves the same year that the Beatles landed in America. Mattel certainly was always aware of its competition, or perhaps more accurately its competing trends in the cultural zeitgeist of those times. They cannily created Barbie issues that bore a resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, Ann Margret and Kim Novak and designed haute couture clothes that bore a striking resemblance to those worn by Jacqueline Kennedy, whose “reign” as arguably our only American queen coincided with Barbie’s ascendence as the Vinyl Goddess of toyland in the early 60s. To wit, Barbie was launched into the doll stratosphere just eight months before John F. Kennedy won the presidency.
I also read that Mattel felt the heat of the popular Ginny toddler doll, who preceded Barbie by a decade, breathing down its neck by 1960 and tried – unsuccessfully – to buy the rites to that doll in order to curtail competition. And Ginny, like other best selling dolls of the mid 50s like Nancy Ann’s Muffie, Ideal’s Betsy Wetsy, and more formidably its Little Miss Revlon, all had the so-called “sleep” eyes that would open and close. But somehow Mattel fell flat on its face when it manufactured Miss Barbie. The eyes didn’t work for children. They looked sunken in their sockets, and yeah, scary. If the company opted to dump the black and white vampire eyes of the #1 and #2 ponytails because they were deemed too frightening for children, they neglected to understand that much of Barbie’s perceived sophistication came from her exotic, handpainted eyes. The smoky eye shadow and deep turquoise and sometimes lighter blue eyes of the early ponytails and bubble cuts that were issued from 1959 to 1964 made for glamour and beauty. Little girls didn’t want to put their Barbies to sleep; they wanted to dress her up in one of her stunning gowns so Barbie could go out and dance the night away. But in Miss Barbie’s case, the eyes are just medium blue with a single black dot in the center for the pupil. No eyeliner, no shadow, no subtle artistic variation from doll to doll. And reddish brown eye brows. Talk about your weird stepsister that you keep locked in the attic, that was Miss Barbie more than any other member of the vintage Barbie line like the freckles-laden Midge. And what’s the deal with that strange, oversized “lawn swing” that children got when they were given one of the new sleep-eyed dolls? Who dreamed that thing up? Who even cared? With Barbie, it was always about the doll and her wardrobe. One of the wonders and alluring aspects of the painted-eyed Barbies was the simplicity of her “package”: a single doll with ponytail or bubble cut (pre-1964) in different hair coloring, a strapless swimsuit (b/w “zebra” suit or red helenca or gold and white striped Fashion Queen swimsuit), open-toed heels, fashion booklet, and stand. All sold inside a narrow box covered with stunning artistic renderings of all the early 900 outfits. But a relatively huge piece of equipment like a two-person lawn rocker — why? Oh, I guess it was one way for Mattel to show off Barbie’s “shapely” legs that could now bend and be crossed at the knees as she hung out in the swing. But seriously? I think that it is entirely conceivable that, in the eleventh hour, a Mattel engineer realized that Miss Barbie was not going to fly. That in envisioning a sleep-eyed doll, they had abandoned everything that made the earliest Barbies, well Barbie. The sophistication of the face paint — as I have said, she never looked like a teenager until the 1967 TNT issue — the infinite facial varieties such artistic individualism allowed. So perhaps her engineers decided to throw in a bulky piece of metal when parents bought the doll and hope that would distract little children from just how unattractive the new “Martian cousin” was. Even Chris Varaste in his terrific book, “Face of the American Dream” — while being overall far more charitable to Miss Barbie’s legitimacy in Barbie history than I am — did say she looked like a “refugee from Future World”.
There is probably no more evidence needed to support an unabashed Barbie collector’s sentiment that Miss Barbie was a complete failure as a “(not so) missing link” in the Barbie evolution than the fact that Mattel only manufactured the doll for one year. At least as far as I can determine, she was only made in 1964 and ultimately deemed unpopular due to her hard plastic face (required to accommodate those heavy weight-laden sleep eyes), according to Stephanie Deutsch in “Barbie: the First Thirty Years.” American Girls hovered on the horizon for 1965 and 1966 with an entirely new visage (sans sleep eyes!) on the drawing board for 1967 when Mattel planned to launch its mod line with what would become the extremely popular Twist n’ Turn Barbie. At least we can give Mattel credit for cutting its losses; it would have been understandable if the top selling dollmaker had dug in its heels and stood behind its decision to come up with a sleep-eyed doll to hold the line against Ginny and Little Miss Revlon (neither whose eyes were sunken). But they didn’t as they cleared the decks and made room for three new issues after 1964 that would all be huge successes with children then and collectors still today: the American Girl, the hair-color changing Color Magic and then the lovely and sweet TNT.
So I think we can honestly conclude that Midge was not really Ponytail and Bubble Cut Barbie’s homely stepsister, whose first issues, mint in box, garner $200 at most. While admittedly perhaps costing more these days due to her rarity without the dreaded but common “melt marks”, Miss Barbie is the single vintage doll relegated to the spare room in the attic. She is the strange relation that is kept out of sight at Barbie family gatherings, sitting up in the darkened attic collecting dust on her mop wig as she sits alone in her swing chair. Well, okay, I have to admit one curious thing I noticed as I researched Miss Barbie’s tenure on the Mattel doll scene. Though disregarded by most collectors today as unappealing, perhaps Mattel didn’t entirely abandon the issue; I noticed an unexpected similarity between Miss Barbie’s face and the freckles-less visage of the Japanese Midge who came out in 1966. Perhaps it was her molded head, but also in the round blue eyes that gaze out from that much more coveted doll’s face. Call me crazy. Miss Barbie might have just turned Japanese.
Posted on March 22, 2014 on "ofbondsandblondes"
So what is it about Mattel and their XY chromosomal response to Barbie, the Ken doll? Why could they never get the poor guy’s image right back when he was still laying on their engineer’s drawing boards in 1961? I mean, not only has Barbie’s male companion (the Archie to her Veronica!) never attained anywhere near the value of Barbie, he can’t even compete with his macho counterpart, Hasbro’s GI Joe, who goes for much higher prices at doll shows these days, outfitted in his “don’t screw with me” camouflage gear and five-day stubble. With the high flying “Barbie, Teenage Fashion Model” bursting out of the starting gates two years earlier, when about 350,000 dolls were sold within her first nine months on the market, Ken continued to linger on toy store shelves, getting dusty, for many more months in his first years. Even now there are far fewer Kens being sold on eBay and it’s easy to pick up a mint-in- box Ken, bedecked in his red swimsuit, towel, sandals, stand and booklet, for less than $200 (mint #1 Barbies from 1959 now change hands for about $5000; her doll stand alone sells for upwards of $1000!)
One intractable problem for Mattel’s designers, in my opinion, has been Ken’s various hair styles. He has been issued with the famous “flocked hair” of the earliest 1961 Kens, in a fuzzy crew cut in blonde or brunette, with a rare special brownette issue; soon followed by the infamous “molded hair” (just rubber ”waves” on top of his head, also blonde and brunette) when he looked like the actor who might have played the life guard in the “Beach Blanket Bingo” movies of the 60s! What a dated, retro buzz cut that suggested! The flocked hair Ken, again just my opinion, was far better looking with his large soulful eyes, shaded by those even larger brows, but his hair flocking hasn’t fared well over the years, typically with significant chunks of the fuzzy stuff rubbed off on many vintage Kens 53 years later. Then came Mod Ken who looked like a peacock with flared tail sitting astride his dome, and Malibu Ken, not much different and both looking like Neal Diamond wannabes. The hair either looks silly or rubs off or sticks out in unmanageable styles. His neck is typically as thick as the base of his head, reminding one of your least favorite gym teacher in high school!
I mean, Mattel was able to get Barbie’s hair looking fabulous in so many styles: from soft curly bangs and long ponytail, to bangs that swirl across her forehead, to the “tight” bubble cut that led to the “big” bubble cut, to flip and pageboy wigs for Fashion Queen Barbie, soon followed by the elegant chin- and shoulder-length pageboy ‘do of the highly desired American Girl Barbie. I mean, Mattel was even able to successfully market a Barbie who sported nearly fluorescent yellow shoulder length hair that could be color changed “magically” to a vibrant red shade! (The more rare, and highly coveted, version of the Color Magic Barbie being one who had raven or “midnight” hair untouched in her box that turned into a ravishing auburn when a powdered color solution was brewed and applied to the doll’s locks. Be still, my heart!) Many of those styles required some ingenuity to get bangs to lay flat, and page boys to remain curled under and remain thusly for 50 plus years to come. Mattel could do that for Barbie; what happened to Ken?
Check out any Barbie reference book (and yes, there are many out there including the Barbie Encyclopedia, Marcie Melillo’s must-have comprehensive Barbie reference tome, to name just two) and you will cringe when you see that this problem never got any better as the years went by. I mean, Ken’s early buzz cut admittedly reflected the late 50s buttoned-down culture of the time; by the time of the mod dolls from 1967 on, Ken had sprouted a mane of dark hair sticking out from all sides of his head, like the Beatle that never made the cut (apologies to long lost Pete Best, the Beatles’ first drummer before Ringo strutted his way onto the stage in London and then New York). The Malibu Ken of the 70s looked remarkably like Neil Diamond, but without the sex appeal. (I guess we are lucky that Mattel never dreamed up an issue to replicate Englebert Humperdinck — can you imagine!) I recently bought a near mint blonde flocked hair Ken from 1961 and was astonished to see how much he looked like Vladimir Putin (my Bad Vlad doll!) but maybe that is just because I have him displayed only in his gray slacks with six-pack abs fully exposed (and also maybe, just maybe, because Putin has been so prominently featured in the news lately.)
Posted originally on March 11, 2014 on "ofbondsandblondes"
So Barbie (The Doll) turned 55 this week. Which is to say, it has been 55 years since Mattel pulled away the proverbial veil to reveal its superstar: the very first, one and only, Barbie doll ever created, at the New York Toy Fair in 1959. And the rest is, as they like to say, history.
Or rather hysteria. So much fuss has been made over the past half century about the “shocking” body proportions displayed by an 11 1/2-inch tall piece of vinyl since the retro year of 1959. (Joseph McCarthy! Communists lurking everywhere!) Good grief, such was the uproar over even the thought of making a doll with hard plastic breasts that, before Barbie was ever made, her “creator” Ruth Handler, Mattel’s co-founder, sent her concept for a more adult doll than the Betsy Wetsys and Tiny Tears and Ginnys, who dominated the doll market in the mid 50s, to Japan with one of her engineers to see if it could be made there, after her US production team and husband Elliot thought the doll would never fly here. No problem, said the Japanese who apparently did not have such a Puritannical coda in their historical genes that would suppress their creative inclinations. We’ll make it, they said, and so they did (and always have, until the late 60s when cheaper Barbies began to be made in Malaysia, the Philippines and Mexico.) So therein should lie the really shocking aspect of Barbie, beyond the mythology of her supposed blonde bimbo persona: Barbie was never made in America. Forget outsourcing or cheaper labor markets: Barbie was made in Asia in the 50s because the Japanese didn’t resist the idea of a doll having anatomically correct features, at least not above the waist. And boy, in the end were Elliot Handler and subsequent Mattel executives glad they didn’t.
And I suppose you might have also heard (unless you’ve been sleeping off a drunk for the past month or so) that the iconic blonde Barbie (the original ponytail Barbie was made with either blonde or raven hair — called brunette, but it was really very black — with blondes outnumbering brunettes by 2:1 in 1959) recently shared the spotlight in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition with some other less famous but equally shapely blondes, brunettes, and maybe even a redhead. Except those femme fatales were not made of vinyl but rather real flesh and blood. I am not sure what it did for either Mattel or SI to have the vinyl partner up with the flesh for yet another edition of this annual salivation rite for America’s men. Barbie remains the bestselling doll of all time and the SI Swimsuit issue remains the bestselling magazine issue every year. So why the marriage….. ? I find myself bombarded by friends sending me articles speculating on Barbie’s imminent fall off the bestselling toy list (to which I say, baloney! It will never happen) and I wonder why I feel compelled to defend the doll. I don’t collect nor even care about the disparagingly termed “pink box” Barbies that are sold now. But I guess I feel an obligation to set the record straight, based on my favorite doll’s stellar history. I guess it’s the brand I am defending (and would someone please inform Mattel of my crusade so I might be able to collect some royalties from her sales??)
Anyway, why all the hysteria about Barbie’s “scandalous” (and yes, a tad unrealistic) dimensions anyway? I mean, she is just a hunk of plastic and I personally do not know one collector of the so-called vintage dolls (the ones made from 1959 to 1969) who is anoerexic because she or he felt compelled to go on a starvation diet because they loved Barbie. Take a gander at the hundreds of people who attend any doll show in any given state on any given weekend and you will probably be more surprised by the exact opposite in body types seen among the many genuine characters you might encounter there (the humorous characters typically seen at doll shows is delicious fodder for another post.) What captivated early collectors of Barbie during her first decade were her stunning, fashion designer-inspired ensembles that were made of top quality fabrics with their incredible attention to detail. Materials like polished cotton, lace, chiffon, brocade, satin, velvet, netting, (real) fur, mink even! Tiny buttons, miniature zippers hand sewn into dresses, finished seams, feather adornments on hats, tiny finished fabric bows on swing coats, and all the mini accessories that a certain outfit required (fashion portfolio for “Career Girl”; tiny potholder and barbeque tools for “Barbie-Q”; a diary and small apple to accompany Barbie off to dreamland in (what else?)her “Sweet Dreams” shortie pajamas set.
About 20 years ago, when I was trying to recover my original childhood Barbie collection which had been lost over the years, I found an antique toy dealer who unearthed five large boxes of vintage Barbies and accessories which he placed on the floor of his store’s front room and told me to have at it. Painstakingly I sifted through the contents of each dusty box, uncovering a catalogue of 1960s toys: hot pink-haired trolls, Little Kiddles, Dawn dolls, Tammy, wooden doll chairs and beds… box after box of miscellanea — but no Barbies. Until the last box. Inside I found a treasure trove of all the Barbie outfits I had owned, and some I had not, from my childhood. As well as a smaller plastic box containing fifty different little accessories that completed many of the outfits. And finally, one beautiful redheaded (“titian” Bubble Cut Barbie (with a short layered hairdo) from 1961, identical to one of the three dolls I had lost. In a daze of euphoria (much like I typically feel when confronted with a roomful of hundreds of the oldest Barbies at dolls shows), I bought the entire lot of clothes, accessories and the bubble cut for $250. It must have included 25 outfits, most nearly complete, in very good to excellent condition, 30 years after Barbie first hit store shelves. It’s hard to understand that adrenalin rush unless you are likewise mesmerized by the classic and exotic beauty and quality of the earliest Barbies. But consider this fact: on any given day on eBay, there are about 10,000 vintage items (pre-1967) listed for sale and it gives you some idea of the dynamics of supply and demand at work in the secondary Barbie market. The doll is hot. Period.
Everywhere on the internet over the past week, you see the hash tag followed by “Unapologetic”, referring to Barbie’s birthday and the concurrent premiere as an SI swimsuit model a month ago. Such commotion. I wondered why the doll should be “apologetic”? She is, after all, just a dollmaker’s lucky creation who hit the catwalk running. She never was a bimbo, as accused, in the various incarnations imagined by Mattel (fashion model, teacher, torch singer, stewardess, nurse, and yes even astronaut — years before Sally Ride was launched into space). And she remains beloved by women now in their 60s as well as many who are younger and had no experience with the first Barbie dolls. When I wrote a monthly column on the oldest Barbies in the late 90s, “The Vintage Vantage”, for a doll magazine in Spokane WA, I once surveyed a number of fellow collectors I knew from the AOL Barbie board, which was a place where dolls and outfits were bought and sold — no fees, no credit protections needed, on a venue that predated eBay’s launch by four to five years. I asked them why they were drawn to the old Barbies, marketed between 1959 and 1969 that, by most appraisals, are the classiest and highest quality of all the Barbies ever created over the past 55 years (estimated to be about 1 billion dolls). Most of the women (and men, too, who tended to play with GI Joe over Ken, as well as Barbies) said they remembered fondly many afternoons sitting on the floors of their bedrooms playing with their Barbies with their sisters. Of how they loved being able to dress a doll, who was most often sold in either a black and white zebra-striped suit or a red helenca swimsuit, in the variety of wonderfully tailored outfits that Mattel sold separately for each doll. How they loved to imagine the different roles they could have when they grew up by dressing Barbie in her different career ensembles. Of the fun, and the imaginative stories created when a young girl held an 11.5 inch doll in her hand. Those stories aren’t a bad legacy for a plastic doll who is shockingly now of an age that qualifies her for AARP membership. Unapologetic? You betcha.
March 20, 2015
So I bought a Tressy doll. Actually I bought five Tressy dolls. You probably aren’t surprised to hear that since you know how we collectors are: ob-sess-ive! We claim we’re going to get just one doll, just one, to see what they are all about, then suddenly we own one of each hair color.
So, yes, I bought some Tressys this month. I wanted to see for myself what fashion dolls created by other toy companies competing with Mattel during that decade looked like in appearance and overall quality. From what I can tell, Tressy was the doll that was most “like” Barbie and, thus, comprised, her stiffest competition by the mid 60s. She was a fashion doll created by the American Character Toy Company of New York City, also measuring about 11.5 inches, also with rooted hair, also sold with a separate line of outfits, who hit the market in 1964, five years after Barbie made her debut at the New York Toy Fair in March 1959.
It’s hard to claim that Tressy posed any serious competition for the rock star fashion doll that was Barbie by the middle of the 1960s. But American Character certainly tried very hard to carve out for itself a piece of the lucrative fashion doll pie -- and shamelessly so, since Tressy is, in my opinion, such a blatant rip off of the early Barbie brand. She was, as noted, the same size as Barbie, with blonde (pale and ash) or brunette hair; first with swirl-type bangs and later sporting straight American Girl-style bangs. She also came with a small booklet with artistic renderings and descriptions of her outfits with names like “Black Magic” (sound familiar?), “Bon Voyage”, “On the Avenue” (also sounds like…), “Pink Champagne”, and “World’s Fair”, just in time for the expedition that was being held in New York City in 1964 and 65 -- and also the dates when American Character sold most of their Tressy and Cricket, (her younger sister like Skipper was to Barbie) dolls. The earliest Tressys had side-glancing eyes, also like our most cherished vinyl vixen, and at least one doll I have is wearing pearl earrings, like the third-issue ponytail and bubble cuts. However, unlike Barbie, she did not seem prone to the dreaded green ear syndrome so perhaps American Character learned something from Mattel’s mistakes in coming up with a vinyl that was less prone to discoloration from the earring posts over time. ( Or else they were just lucky in using the plastic they used.)
But Tressy, in a bold (and in the end, perhaps lame) attempt to try to lure from Barbie some of the huge numbers of fashion doll devotees, had a gimmick that Barbie did not have (and, I might add, did not need.) And that was, she had hair that grew. No kidding! Tressy was sold with a key that --even if did not ultimately unlock the hearts of the millions of young Barbie lovers -- inserted into a keyhole in Tressy’s upper back and would allow children to retract a swatch of hair that “grew” out of a hole in the crown of her head when a button was pushed on her stomach. Push button: a stalk of hair is forced up out of the top of her head; turn the “T” (for Tressy!) key and it disappears back into the doll’s head again. (You can’t make this stuff up.) That piece of longer hair that had come out of her head could be braided or wrapped in a bun and affixed with small bobby pins on top of the doll’s head, with the remaining hair falling to her shoulders in a page boy. Or the longer strands would be twisted into a pointed beehive -- how sixties! --and pinned to her crown. Where is Audrey Hepburn when we need her? I will give it to Tressy on this one point: that beehive hairdo was more reflective of the Swinging Sixties than ever was Barbie’s ponytail or bouffant bubble cut.
That’s about the only area where Tressy successfully one-upped Barbie. I got my first three Tressy dolls in the mail this week and it’s astonishing to see the cheap construction of the doll’s bodies. She has an alarmingly large head but with a sweet face with lip paint that rarely fades or rubs. But her torso and legs are made of very thin, cheap plastic, with a seam that runs down the side of the legs. I remember buying a “Flair” fashion doll from a drug store shelf years ago, before the internet opened up a universe of old dolls for collectors, when I needed a quick fashion doll “fix”. Her hair stuck out of the sides of her head and her body was made of cheap and crudely molded plastic. Tressy is only of slightly better quality. You stand a Tressy doll side-by-side with a vintage Barbie and it’s like a Michelangelo sculpture next to one molded by your artistic aunt. And I really do not exaggerate! No toe nail or finger nail polish; no molded eye ridges, no well-articulated fingers, no ankles! Barbie is solid; she’s got heft. Tressy is thin and insubstantial. In fact, Tressy looks a lot like the very cheap Flair doll, with slightly better hair and much nicer clothes.
Accordingly, I will give some points to American Character for the impressive attention to detail and quality they gave to Tressy’s clothing line. While the fabrics they used didn’t come close to the brocades, silks, taffeta, and furs seen in the earliest 900 design series for Barbie, they are of a higher quality than I expected. “Chic Shift” is a turquoise knit sheath with a leather belt with two decorative brass buttons on it and black mules almost identical to those worn by the vintage Barbie; the “World’s Fair” ensemble is comprised of a crisp white cotton sun dress with a design of black and navy lines and lace edging, with short white gloves, a branch of flowers (corsage), and a terrific shiny black straw hat. And she carries a tiny metal (not cheap plastic) camera on a strap with her name emblazoned on it! “Black Magic” is my favorite: a long gown with a black velvet sleeveless bodice and a long black satin sheath skirt, embellished with a cluster of two purple flowers at the waist. The ensemble includes a netted shawl of black and silver. “Gay Parisienne” it may not be, but many of Tressy’s outfits are very lovingly tailored, indeed.
Of course Tressy’s main draw for those fashion doll enthusiasts on a budget today is that she is very affordable (though as far as I can tell, she surprisingly retailed for $5.00 compared with $3.00 for Barbie in the mid 60s) The doll comes dressed in a red knit sleeveless sheath with white trim on the arm and neck openings and you can find one in excellent condition on eBay today for about $35.00 to $50.00. I have not found any NRFB Tressys and actually, her boxes themselves are hard to find in very good condition, in my experience. Often they have water damage or missing top panels or have torn seams. I have seen a Tressy in very good-to-excellent condition (however, often their hair is in various lengths since young girls have pulled out the top swatch of hair and it remains in a bun or braid) with her box, her hair pins and curlers for about $125.00. As with Barbie, brunettes are harder to come by and so are priced accordingly higher. But that gimmick thing with the hair: the mechanism that allows it to “grow” is prone to breakage so you often find a doll with permanently extended hair. You have to have that “T” key in hand to help retract the hair back in the head but, with many older dolls, it often doesn’t work fifty years on. While the hair-extending mechanism undeniably proved popular with 60s children, it was just one more thing to break and that likelihood reduces her overall condition. And because of that, it may be nearly impossible to find a mint/near mint Tressy today with untouched hair.
In the end, I am not sure how American Character was able to essentially replicate Barbie’s booklet of outfits without being hit with a mega lawsuit. It was not like Mattel was known to play nicely with companies that tried to take them on in those days, or even in recent times. Just check the company’s history with the very popular 1950s Ginny toddler doll, or more recently, the Bratz doll-- or even with Miller’s Doll Magazine, my former employer, in the 90s. Not only did Tressy come with a similar booklet of her outfits but there were names and descriptions of those ensembles that could have been penned by the same copy editor! It’s amazing that American Character could get away with that sort of, well, plagiarism. And perhaps in the end, they did not, since they declared bankruptcy by 1967 and sold its “growing hair” patent to Ideal for its 1969 Crissy doll, who was never a fashion doll. As far as I can tell, the last Tressy rolled off the manufacturing line in 1965, a short life indeed when compared with Barbie, at 56 and counting.