Before There Was Barbie, There Was Lilli

Photo: Fondation Tanagra

Barbie dolls are a household name throughout the United States, and they have been for decades. Before there was Barbie, though, there was another doll called Lilli — and she was not marketed to kids at all.

Introducing, Lilli

Lilli was created in Germany in 1952. She originated from a comic strip character in the Hamburg newspaper Bild-Zeitung.

The character of Lilli was known for being witty and sexually uninhibited. Because of her irreverent nature, she quickly became beloved by readers of all genders.

The comic-strip character Lilli was created by Reinhard Beuthien for the German tabloid newspaper Bild

In response to her extreme popularity, a plastic version of the famous character was created. She certainly wasn’t for children, though, as most dolls are. Instead, she was sold as an adult novelty item.

According to Robin Gerber, who wrote the book Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and is quoted in an article published by Time magazine, the Lilli dolls were sold in adult toy stores, bars, and even tobacco shops throughout Europe.

Men often received these dolls as gag gifts and dangled them from their rearview mirrors. They also gave them as suggestive gifts to their girlfriends.

From Lilli to Barbie

When you look at pictures of the original Lilli doll, it’s not hard to see where the inspiration for the Barbie doll came from. Lilli was a little less than 12 inches tall and had platinum blonde hair and large breasts. She also wore blue eye shadow, had red puckered lips and had a suggestive arch to her eyebrows.

Bild-Lilli doll

Unlike the German doll, the American Barbie has slightly more wholesome features. She still had a similar, curvy build. However, the makeup was lessened and helped the dolls to appear a bit more kid-friendly.

The feet of the American Barbies are also quite different from the feet of the Bild Lilli dolls. While American Barbies have arched feet with small toes, Lilli dolls have no feet at all. The ends of their legs are shaped like stilettos and are painted black.

A Barbie Is Born

In 1956, Ruth Handler, the co-founder of toy brand Mattel, took a trip to Switzerland with her 15-year-old daughter, Barbara. Barbara took notice of the Lilli Doll during their stay, and Ruth picked up three to take home with them.

Three years after she was first introduced to the Lilli dolls, Ruth rolled out her own version, Barbie, on March 9, 1959. The doll was named after her daughter.

The 1st Barbie that was introduced in 1959 – Photo: Mattel

Handler acknowledged in a 1977 interview that her doll was sexier than most American toys. She didn’t have a problem with that, though, and said that she wanted to create something that a girl could use to “project herself into her dream of her future.”

The Barbies of Today

Although Handler herself saw no problems with the way her dolls looked, many others have shared different opinions. The Barbies of today have actually changed proportions quite a bit to more closely mimic a “regular woman’s” appearance.

Handler may not have approved of these changes, but plenty of parents throughout the world certainly seem to.