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Barbies on the 'Barbie'

I couldn’t keep Barbie out of the house, but my son had a solution





BY JANET SILVER GHENT | JULY 25, 2023

Growing girls, bored with mothering baby dolls, glommed onto a blonde with boobs and a burgeoning wardrobe. In 1959, Ruth Handler hit the jackpot with Barbie — now reborn at the box office, thanks to Greta Gerwig’s new blockbuster. But Barbie was hardly the first commercial alternative for girls who were tired of being little mamas. In 1950, I had a Toni doll whose auburn nylon wig could be washed, curled and restyled. Within a day of receiving the doll, I shampooed her hair, set it with pink curlers and gave her a permanent. After I styled her hair a few times, Toni lost her luster and I set her on a shelf. Another friend had a Tintair doll with a platinum Dynel mane that could be colored red or brunette. Then along came another blonde, Joanie Pigtails, who arrived in a carrying case with a couple of wardrobe changes. But the dolls who wore hearts on their chest — symbolizing the candy hearts inside them, according to creator Johnny Gruelle — were Raggedy Ann and Andy, and they got into mischief. I would seat them at the kitchen table with crayons and coloring books and step out of the room. When I returned, they had scribbled on the pages, writing ANN and ANDY in sloppy capital letters. Another time I found them hanging onto the knobs of our kitchen cabinet with jelly on their faces. My mother never admitted a thing until I became a mother myself, and she arrived in my hospital room with two large boxes containing Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls for my daughter. “Remember when they got into the kitchen cabinet?” my mother said, smiling. “They loved jelly.” Believing that Barbie epitomized bourgeois consumerism, I didn’t buy the blond bombshell for my daughter. Instead, she received a lefty alternative known as the Sunshine Family. The artsy-craftsy couple and their baby lived and worked in a van where their business was creating fake leather accessories out of plastic or from household odds and ends. The Sunshine Daddy, who was no Beach Blanket Ken, sported unruly, brown hair that spilled onto the top of his turtleneck. The blond, flat-footed, sandal-clad Sunshine Mommy wore a long, floral-print dress topped by an apron. Unlike Ken and Barbie, the Sunshine folks emanated love, Haight-Ashbury style. Despite my best intentions, Barbies entered our household as gifts at birthday parties, and they came to no good end. One morning while my daughter was in grade school and her 3-year-old brother was at home, I smelled something burning in my daughter’s room. My son had mounted three of his sister’s dolls atop a lamp shade, which skirted a burning-hot lightbulb. When the dolls’ plastic limbs began to melt and their wigs began to sear, creating a noxious aroma, I came running out of the laundry room. I was able to salvage one of the dolls, but the other two were toast. My son, in all innocence, thought he was creating a cozy house for his sister’s dolls inside a lampshade. He had no idea he was igniting a fire. We took off for Toys R Us to purchase a replacement doll, but the store had no Barbies. The closest thing I could find was Growing Up Skipper, Barbie’s little sister, who sprouted boobs and grew taller when her arm was circled forward. She became flat-chested and shorter again when her arm circled the other way.

I picked up my daughter at school, delivering good news and bad news. “Here is a new Skipper doll,” I said, as she lit up. “But I’m afraid your brother has barbecued your Barbies.”

Sadly, the Barbie conflagration did not lay to rest our family’s flirtation with suburban pursuits. After our granddaughters were born, along came the American Girl dolls: Waspy Samantha from the early 1900s, Black Claudie from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, pig-tailed Molly of the 1940s and, yes, Jewish Rebecca from the Lower East Side in the 1910s.

Each doll has a storybook, plus an amazing wardrobe, as well as coordinating clothes for little girls. During a 2005 visit to the American Girl store in New York with my daughter and granddaughters, we overheard a well-dressed Manhattan mom lamenting, “These dolls have nicer clothes than I do.”

Each of those 18-inch dolls will set you back more than $115 now, not counting the extra outfits and accessories. A bare-bones Barbie, by contrast, is a bargain at around $25.

Our children and grandchildren are grown now, and their dolls were packed away or regifted long ago. But I will never forget my jelly-faced rag dolls and the burning Barbies.


Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.


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