Judi and Joni: “Rulers of their Barbie Universe”

1959-barbie

All photos: Copyright Mattel

Today – Judi, aka Sumac Sue, shares her memories of growing up with Barbie. Thank you so much for contributing this, Judi — you are a beautiful writer and story-teller!

My younger sister, Joni, and I probably got our first Barbies in 1963, when she was in kindergarten and I was in second grade. These were the Barbies with hair in a ponytail with a fringe of bangs in front, sultry eye makeup, and pert red mouth. These features, along with a rather long, slender body, made the Barbie mildly similar to Audrey Hepburn….

…. Over time, we acquired Ken dolls with peach fuzz hair, a Midge with freckles and a strawberry blonde flip, and a Skipper with long blonde hair and funny flat feet. There were two more Barbies, one who came with several wigs, and one with hair that changed colors. Finally, we got tiny dolls called Liddle Kiddles, that we pretended were Barbie and Skipper’s little sisters. This was the extent of our Barbie Family. We stored them all in black Barbie suitcases that opened up into little dressing rooms, with storage and hanging compartments.

1962-barbieWe had a few “real” Barbie outfits, but most of our Barbie clothes were made by our mom. A favorite Barbie memory is of Joni and me sitting on the floor wrapping scraps of fabric around our Barbies as Mom sat at the sewing machine, stitching up such ensembles as a nurse’s uniform complete with cape and cap and a satin wedding dress and gauzy veil. Nothing demonstrates a mother’s love quite like sewing teensy tiny buttons onto a sportcoat for Ken.

Barbies have gotten a lot of criticism over the years for supposedly being sexist toys that stifle girls’ development, presenting an image of women as pretty objects interested only in fashion and traditional female roles. I think that sort of view of Barbie is off base, because it doesn’t take into consideration that any toy, including Barbie, can be a launching point for a child’s creativity and imagination. When we played with Barbies, we each became rulers of our Barbie universe, and there was nothing stifling about it.

1963-Barbie-Fashion-QueenFor instance, Joni and I received a Barbie newsletter, in which girls shared ideas on how to make things for Barbie from items found around the house. We were networking! By sharing ideas, we all became architects and interior designers — and recyclers, too — by making houses out of shoe boxes, and tables and chairs out of popsicle sticks and margarine tubs. We developed organizational skills, not to mention dexterity, by storing tiny accessories in old pill bottles and Band-aid boxes.

We kept this up until we hit junior high. Other activities took the place of Barbie, and our black cases stayed on the toy shelf. My sister never had children, so she still has her Barbie and Ken in their black case. I had a daughter, and I made the mistake a lot of moms make — I presented Kaitlin with her first Barbie when she was much too young to appreciate it. She promptly stuck it into a fountain at the park and used it as a tool for splashing her brother.

I waited a few years before letting her play with my old Barbies, but she never was as interested in Barbies as she was in her Beanie Babies and Pound Puppies. She received several Barbies from relatives for birthdays, an older cousin passed along her Barbies, and in time, my black Barbie case contained a tossed Barbie salad of tangled hair, detached arms and legs, wrinkled dresses, and tiny shoes scattered throughout like croutons. At some point I threw it all into a box of things headed for Goodwill. I regret doing that now because I’m sure there were a few outfits in there made by my mom. I wish I would have given them to Joni, to put into her Barbie archives.

So far, my favorite Barbie is actually one I gave as a gift to Joni a few years ago. It was a country girl Barbie, dressed in a straw hat and gingham dress, that I ordered off of a box of Little Debbie Snack Cakes. She loved it. Maybe someday I will have a granddaughter and I will get her a Barbie — but I will wait until she is seven or eight and is old enough to take care of it.

Can’t wait to hear more Barbie stories!

Judi

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Comments

  1. Elvis (aka) Jane says

    Thank you for that wonderful Barbie sister story, Judi.

    You triggered a memory for me of the Barbie beds a sweet, childless neighbor made for my sister and me. She upholstered the damask headboards with tiny tacks, and sewed beautiful aqua sheets with fancy stitching and pink blankets that were the perfect size. Like you, I would love to have them now!

  2. Jeanne says

    Judi, I remember Liddle Kiddles!

    I have all my Barbie stuff….everything except the black case. I have a few of the outfits shown in the original commercial that Pam posted, including the gold brocade outfit with the fur trim. I also have some cool homemade outfits my mom made. One is especially precious to me, as it was made out of this very groovy, bright 60s fabric that she made a dress for me out of as well. I’ve but all the outfits together (shoes and accessories) in ziplock bags to keep them together. I also have Skipper, Scooter and Francie (another Barbie friend I believe) and somewhere along the way gave away Allen (I always wanted Ken, but received Allen for Christmas, haha). I should photograph the outfits. Never enough hours in the day. 🙂

  3. Pat says

    My sister and I got our Barbies shortly after they came out, I think in 1959 or 1960, ours are #3’s and #4’s. I suppose that doesn’t mean anything to most people, just Barbie collectors. We had very few purchased outfits, we didn’t even have a Barbie case, just shoe boxes, we made all our furniture, Mom made the clothes. Later we made some of our own clothes, along with knitting clothes for our troll dolls! We still have our original dolls (later we each bought ourselves a bubble cut barbie with our own money). Gees, we played with ours until we were at least 13. Now they stop playing with them at 8 years old, so sad. I’m so glad we still have ours, although, I also made a mistake and let my niece play with mine and she broke the sunglasses and smushed a straw purse. But, it coulda been worse, at least the doll survived! I have since collected about 50 vintage Barbies, they are all so different from each other (the faces were hand painted back then!). I have them displayed in a vintage cigar display case, the perfect place for them (although they are getting crowded!)

  4. says

    My Barbie and Ken were hand me downs from my older sisters. Ken had fuzzy hair. One of my sisters dated a guy named Ken in the 60s and I thought it was so funny, I’d call her “Barbie”. Well, guess what. I married a Ken. Who knew! They also handed down a pink convertible which was one of my favorite items. My out-of-state maiden aunt would knit sweaters and make clothes from patterns for my Barbie and I looked forward to opening her gift at Christmas. My sisters also had Muffie (sp?) dolls with all the furniture. I hear about the hours of fun they had making rooms from cardboard boxes. Seems like I remember them having a pink refrigerator. Anyone remember them?

  5. mcmeg says

    My sister is seven years older than I and I inherited her Barbie and Midge and Black Barbie case. I remember some of those original outfits. Remember the blue appliqued skirted jumper? Later I had a Skipper and my best friend and I spent hours making cardboard houses and making our own Barbie clothes. Unfortunately, all those are gone. My daughter, who is 20 still keeps her plastic box full of Barbies, clothes and paraphernalia. Thanks for sharing and bringing back those memories.

  6. says

    I actually remember praying to God that I wouldn’t stop liking playing with Barbies as my sister had. Part of the plea to the heavens included the fact that it was “so, so fun and nothing else will be that fun.”

  7. Barb Scott says

    I had a Barbie just like the one pictured. I used to sit in the middle of our living room floor and play with mine for hours! I had all the requisite accompanying pieces: Barbie’s car, the Dream House, the Fashion Shop, the small black carrying case with the Barbies on the front and the larger back carrying case that I believe had Barbie and Ken on it. I had the cool four-poster bed, and the white plastic furniture with the yellow and orange spongy pillows. I had Ken, Midge, Alan (Midge’s boyfriend), Skipper, etc…..and also got the newer Barbies as they came out. There was a doll called Francie, I believe, that I also had. Over the years, I got rid of all of my Barbie stuff.

  8. Barb Scott says

    Oops….and I hit a key and it posted! A couple of years ago, I picked up the skinny black Barbie case for $10-12.00 at an antique show. My husband and I were wandering through a vintage toy store in Ashland, Ohio and ran across a pretty complete Barbie Dream House, just like the one I had. I made the comment that if I had the extra $$ I would have bought it….but didn’t. For our wedding anniversary that year, when I returned home from church that Sunday, guess what was sitting in the middle of our living room with a big bow and a card? You guessed it….that beautiful Dream House. It is now stored away, but we get out both the house and the carrying case and put them under our vintage aluminum tree, along with our Lite Brite, an Etch a Sketch, a Spirograph, and lots of other vintage toys that we have collected (usually bought because we had one of them as a child)!

  9. vacationbarbie says

    Oh I loved my Barbies too! I had the Barbie house from the early 70’s complete with hanging swing on the patio. My sister and I also inherited from the older neighborhood girls a 1960’s Barbie Ranch style house complete with a cardboard console tv, I also remember having a real working sink (it had a reservoir that held water), a fridge (with food) and a table and chairs. My older brother built us Barbie bunk beds and we also used shoe boxes to make other things, including clothes. We also had Barbie, Midge, Francie, Skipper and Barbie’s friend P.J. P.J. had ash blond hair and was dressed in a bathing suit with lavender sunglasses.
    I just googled P.J. and came up with a list on Wiki of all Barbie’s friends and relatives! LOL

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Barbie%27s_friends_and_family

    We moved to Florida, from Chicago, when I was in the 7th grade and I sadly gave all my Barbie stuff away to a friends little girl. I saw it a few years later and it was completely trashed. So sad. Sniff….

  10. Jita says

    I agree about what you said about Barbie.
    I too agree that she gets a bad rap.
    In my childhood mind Barbie could have everything she put her mind to. My Barbie’s where married, with children, immaculate homes, and wonderful jobs.
    Barbie could be an astronaut, stay-at-home mom, or doctor.
    Nothing held Barbie back from having her dreams and achieving them.

  11. says

    Entirely fabulous story. One of the problems with all the modern dolls and often modern Barbies, is that they come with pre-prescribed furniture and clothes, now so cheap and freely available. it doesn’t allow for children to use there imaginations and creativity. Having an experience like yours, is what develops the designers of tomorrow.

  12. jan says

    If I had to guess who might have been the human model for Barbie, it would likely be Vera-ellen. She was an actor and dancer from the 50’s, notably in White Christmas with Rosemary Clooney, Bing, and Danny Kaye. Google her name for images or check these links out.
    For figure: http://movies.tvguide.com/white-christmas/photos/122768/3
    For facial comparison:
    http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3131/3084049278_2d8c178033.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.flickr.com/photos/20connectedbreaths/3084049278/&usg=__INJnYHHsuEqpLgUodtN7dqbzFaQ=&h=333&w=500&sz=142&hl=en&start=87&um=1&tbnid=QTannBIG8tEHfM:&tbnh=87&tbnw=130&prev=/images%3Fq%3DVera-ellen%26ndsp%3D20%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den%26sa%3DN%26start%3D80%26um%3D1

  13. sumacsue says

    Jan, you are so right about Vera-ellen as a model for Barbie. I never noticed that before, even though I love those holiday movies. My Barbie had brown hair, so that is why I thought she looked like Audrey Hepburn.

    Barb Scott, we have similar taste in toys. I still have my childhood Etch-a-Sketch, and my sister has her Lite Brite. Our Spirograph disappeared along the way, but I found one with all the parts at a yard sale last year, and gave it to my stepson’s girlfriend, who is an artist. Did you have the Think-a-tron? My sister still has it, too. But, alas, one of our favorites, the Showboat Majestic Theatre, floated away somewhere. Our Barbies would sit on the floor and watch Showboat Majestic performances of plays like “Heidi.” My parents were super toy picker-outers back in the old days. But then, they had so many great toys to pick from.

  14. Freddie says

    I had always been one that liked to get my hands dirty and play with GI Joes. However, Barbies provided them with dates and spouses in play. I learned that it takes more time for females to get ready for going out than guys. Therefore, I need to provide more time for my old girlfriends and wife to get ready for events.

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