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This German Doll You've Never Heard of Was the Inspiration for Barbie

Meet Lilli, the quick-witted star of a bawdy comic strip.

Barbie may be one of the most familiar and best-selling toys of all time, but her origin story may come as a surprise to even the doll's biggest fans.

In the 1950s, Ruth Handler, a cofounder of Mattel, noticed that, when her daughter and friends would play with toys, they preferred to playact in an aspirational manner: They'd imagine dolls doing "adult" things, like going to college or to work. Handler had one of those lightbulb ideas—to invent a toy that better allowed kids to imitate such grown-up, mature activities (going to a day job, going on dates, driving to the beach in a nice car). At the time, Mattel's directors shot the idea down.

Enter: Lilli (pictured above). On June 24, 1952, the Hamburg-based tabloid paper Bild-Zeitung began running a strip about a quick-witted escort named Lilli who lived a fabulous life seducing wealthy male suitors in postwar Germany. Readers couldn't get enough of its bawdy humor. (One indicative bit: When reprimanded by an officer for wearing a two-piece bikini in public—banned at the time—she shoots back, "Well, which part should I take off?") So, in 1955, some of the entrepreneurial minds at the newspaper struck on the idea of releasing a plastic doll of the character that could be sold as a party gift for adults. It was marketed to adults, and usually featured double entendres in the advertising materials.

But Handler, who encountered the doll while traveling in Europe during 1956, realized she struck gold, and could bring a dead idea of hers back to life. With a few tweaks, Lilli could absolutely work for a younger audience. Handler adjusted the design and wardrobe, lightened the skin tone, and gave her a more Americanized name: Barbie, inspired by Handler's daughter, Barbara. Mattel unveiled Barbie on March 9, 1959. Thanks to an innovative marketing push, the toy became a major hit and Handler's instincts were proven precisely correct: there was indeed a market for kids toys that were a bit more mature.

Even with the modifications that Mattel had made, the similarities between Barbie and Lilli remained irrefutable, and the makers of the first-draft risqué doll—toymaker Greiner & Hausser—weren't going to ignore the runaway success of a toy clearly based on their idea. After securing a U.S. patent for the "doll hip joint" used in the original doll, Lilli's maker sued the toy giant in 1963, seeking royalties for every Barbie sold. The parties agreed on a solution; settling out of court, Mattel purchased Greiner & Hausser's copyright and patent outright.

Without the patent, in 1983, Greiner & Hausser collapsed. But like the bad guy in a scary movie coming back from the dead for one final fright, in 2001, Greiner & Hausser's court-appointed liquidator sued Mattel again, claiming it had defrauded his client in the sale agreement. Mattel won, and continues to retain the copyright and patent—and few of the millions of parents who have bought the doll over its six decades of market dominance are even aware of its salacious predecessor. And for more astonishing trivia about America's favorite doll, check out these 29 Fascinating Things You Never Knew About Barbie.

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Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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