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This Is How Barbie Got Her Name

Yes, she has middle and last names, too.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know who Barbie is. For the past six decades, the career-swapping children's toy has been a fixture in both popular culture and kid's rooms from coast to coast. She's unmissable. But do you know how Barbie came to be called, well, Barbie? It's a more personal origin story than you might imagine.

Ruth Handler, a cofounder of Mattel, came up on the idea for the toy after seeing her daughter and friends playing with paper dolls for hours on end. The children would have their paper dolls fulfill various roles of girls or women years older than they were: cheerleaders, college students, career women. Handler came upon the idea of creating a 3-D doll for "girls to play out their dreams." Using a German doll as a model, Handler gave her invention a distinctly American look, wardrobe, and name.

Okay, so why "Barbie?" Simple: it's a classic case of "art imitates life." Handler's daughter, the person most responsible for inspiring her to develop the idea of the doll, was named Barbara. It was a tribute to the girl and a way for Handler to show her gratitude. (Since Barbara was 17 by the time the doll actually hit shelves, she was not exactly the target market by the time it actually came available.)

Like icons from Cher to Madonna, Barbie is known simply by her first name—but she has middle and last names, too. When she first debuted in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair, almost exactly 60 years ago, Barbie was dubbed "Barbara Millicent Roberts" and said to be a "teenage fashion model." Details are scant about where these names came from, though they carry the all-American sound that Mattel was going for with the character. Barbie was initially greeted with skepticism by the industry, considering she didn't quite look like the other dolls on the market, but, thanks to an unconventional form and a pioneering marketing campaign on the part of Mattel, grew to be a huge success. Now, 60 years later, Barbie is still flying off shelves—according to a CNBC report, Barbie sales recently hit five straight quarters of growth—and still giving young girls the idea that they can be anyone they want to be.

Of course, Barbie's boyfriend is an icon in his own right. Ken was named after Handler's son (apparently the inventor didn't see anything all that strange about having characters named after her son and daughter date each other, but that's her business). Less-famed are Barbie's rather extensive friends and family, including three sisters (Skipper, Stacie, and Chelsea), a few cousins, and a ton of friends—chief among them, her longest, Midge.

While Barbie's popularity has endured, the popularity of "Barbie" as a name has had its up and downs. According to the Social Security Administration, the name's popularity spiked shortly after the doll's launch, with between 70 to 100 babies per million named "Barbie" throughout the early-to-mid-1960s. The name never returned to that level of interest, dwindling to its current level—between 10 and 20 babies per million—from the 1990s on. Art may imitate life. But life doesn't always imitate art. And for more childhood gems, check out these 20 Crazy Valuable Things You Probably Owned and Threw Out.

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