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North Carolina Museum of Dolls, Toys and Miniatures to celebrate Barbie’s big 6-0

SPENCER — As far as career women go, Barbie has been a busy woman.

She’s been a pilot, a star athlete, a doctor. She’s dabbled as an astronaut, a NASCAR driver, a beekeeper and baker — the list goes on, reaching a grand total of more than 200 occupations.

As of March 9, she’ll have had 60 years to accomplish it all, and local toy aficionados are already at work to celebrate. Barbie expert Bradley Justice of Durham joined staff members of the North Carolina Museum of Dolls, Toys and Miniatures on Wednesday to help assemble a tribute to the ageless sexagenarian.

The tribute will be on display at the museum through March 9, with several events to be scheduled to commemorate the milestone: an appraisal fair, an evening cocktail preview for adults, and a day-of presentation and party.

Justice’s assembled exhibit will feature the museum’s collection. But both he and museum director Beth Nance say the focus will be on more than just the doll and her myriad career and style choices.

The exhibit will document the behind-the-scenes development and evolution of the wildly successful product: the designers, the engineers and more.

“We’re really interested in documenting the history,” Nance said, noting that the museum was started as a tribute to her sister, Amy Dawn Morris. Morris, a doll collector, passed away young.

“My sister was a huge Barbie collector. … For us to be able to really put a focus on Barbie is awesome.”

A Barbie expert, author and recipient of the Barbie’s Best Friend award, Justice said his fascination with all things Barbie began when he was 11.

“For years, we’ve always focused on the toys and the dolls. You never stop to think that whatever you’re playing with as a kid, someone had to sit down and think ‘we need to invent this,'” Justice said. “I’ve always been wickedly curious about anything and its backstory.”

As for backstories, he said, Barbie has an interesting one.

The doll was envisioned by Ruth Handler, who wanted to create a three-dimensional, adult paper doll after watching her preteen daughter play with her own collection.

On vacation in Europe, she discovered the Bild Lilli doll, based on a popular comic strip character.

A popular and rather adult-themed comic strip character, Justice said. “So there is a bit of a torrid history in Barbie’s past.”

Back in the United States and with the help of engineer Jack Ryan, Handler would retool Bild Lilli into a more family-friendly doll. Barbie, named after Handler’s daughter Barbara, debuted on March 9, 1959, at a New York toy fair.

She was launched in a black-and-white swimsuit, giving an option for immediate play. But Justice said the plan was always for a little something different.

“It was what we call the ‘Gilette’ method,” he said. “They sold you the doll for an economical price. But then you had to buy all the clothes, so there was this demand.”

With so many options, consumers were hooked, Justice said. “The end of that first year at Christmas, (Mattel’s) warehouse was empty.”

Barbie was followed by other makes, models, family members and friends as the years ticked on: Ken, Francie and Skipper, to name a few. Each required his or her own wardrobe.

In the coming weeks, many early versions of this cast of characters will be on display at the museum, located at 108 Fourth St. with varying hours. No. 3 Barbie, for example, stands on the shelf as a heeled brunette in that classic black-and-white one-piece.

Nearby is the first Ken, a similarly swimsuit-clad gentleman with flocked hair that was far from durable, Justice pointed out with a laugh.

Then there are other, more diverse gems. “Black Barbie,” the first African-American Barbie that carried the trademark name, was launched in 1980 with a box that proclaimed she was  “black, … beautiful, (and) … dynamite.”

The exhibit also features some Mattel misses — products that flopped or were met with controversy. One such doll, Growing Up Skipper, gained scaled-down inches in multiple directions with a twist of an arm. Feminists were far from pleased.

“Even by today’s standards, I’m kind of like, ‘What were they thinking?'” Justice said with a laugh.

As Nance and Justice continue assembling the display in the coming days, they say they’re on a quest for some missing links in the doll’s history.

“We’re calling on the community to lend us some things to display,” Justice said. “There are some things that we don’t have that we think are kind of iconic, like Barbie’s first car, Barbie’s first dream house. We want people from the community to share their memories of Barbie, their history with Barbie and their treasures.”

This, Justice said, is just as important as any aspect of the doll’s 60 years.

“As collectors, we always love and treasure when a doll is completely pristine and untouched,” he said. “I love that, but I also love when somebody brings me their case and says, ‘These were the dolls that I played with and these are the memories I have.’ … I really appreciate that. Sometimes I love the history and the story as much as I appreciate the doll itself.”

To offer something for the celebratory display, call 704-762-9359 or visit 108 Fourth St. in Spencer. 

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