My guilty secret is out. I have extensive collection of vintage Barbie dolls. Admitting this has earned me dubious looks and derisive comments from my some of my friends. What is a fifty-something woman doing with a shelf-load of eleven and a half inch vinyl goddesses? Isn't that childish? Don't I realize how damaging Barbie's incredible plastic physique has been to the self-image of generations of real girls? Shouldn't I be doing something more socially responsible with my time?
Forty-nine years year ago, I was an eight-year-old whose mother and grandmother never had enough dolls as children. Their idea of a perfect birthday or Christmas present was a pretty doll. I had baby dolls, a Madame Alexander ballerina, a 17" Shirley Temple, a Little Miss Revlon. We weren't well-to-do, but buying these toys made them very happy. I liked dolls well enough, though I preferred my bicycle, pets and books. I mostly displayed the dolls on a shelf in bedroom that my younger sister and I shared, which accounts for how well preserved they are today.
In 1959 the newest toy being advertised was Barbie, the teenage fashion model. Mom and Grandma took the train to Milwaukee, went to Gimbels, stood in line and bought me a blond ponytail Barbie ($3.00), complete with gold hoop earrings, a black and white swimsuit, sunglasses, black open-toed heels and Attitude. Grandpa disapproved; he could see that times were changing when little girls put aside their baby dolls for a model that needed a clothing allowance. I got a couple store-bought outfits that Christmas, though over the years as my sister and I grew our Barbie collection to include Midge, Ken and Allen, Mother usually made clothes to outfit them. She sewed wee shirtwaist dresses trimmed in rickrack, knitted wee sweaters and hats, even tailored little bitty suits for the male dolls. Sometimes we got the more expensive couture clothing Mattel marketed, but usually our dolls wore home sewn, like we did.
Flash forward to 2000. My youngest sister has died, unexpectedly, just after her 40th birthday. Grandma is the nursing home, and Mother isn't very well herself. It's Mothers Day, and my other sister and I turn the conversation at the table away from sad topics and ask if Mom still had our Barbies? Didn't she use to have our Barbies saved in the cedar chest? It was magic. The dishes were cleared and we were sent downstairs, where we found two old vinyl Ponytail cases, two bubblecut Barbies, two frumpy Midges and two fuzzy-headed Kens. We spent the afternoon looking at treasure, dividing it into two piles, squinting at the tiny dresses with designer labels, wee shoes, hats, and accessories.
I began researching the dolls, and realized that I could have the little outfits I coveted from the old Mattel catalogs. Thanks to eBay, I began collecting vintage Barbies and their marvelous outfits. I started driving to doll shows. I joined a local doll club, went to a couple national conventions. I had some damaged dolls repaired, repainted, even rerooted. But most of all, when I acquired a new Barbie or outfit, I took it to Mom. It was something we both enjoyed, something cheerful, something far removed from aging, illness and death.
That's how I started collecting Barbie. Since Mom's death four years ago, I have mostly gone from acquisition mode to slowly thinning my stash. I've sold the newer Barbies; the Skippers, and the Francies are next. The collection takes too much room, and it doesn't serve the same purpose any more. I'm keeping the the Barbies (1959-1965) and their original outfits for a while. Collecting them has happy associations for me, and it represents an investment of time, cash and emotion. I'm showing the collection to my doll club on Tuesday, then most of them will go back into storage.