Meet Lilli, the High-end German Call Girl who became America’s Iconic Barbie Doll

By

29th Jan, 2016

lilliebarbie1

So it turns out Barbie’s original design was based on a German adult gag-gift escort doll named Lilli. That’s right, she wasn’t a dentist or a surgeon, an Olympian gymnast, a pet stylist or an ambassador for world peace. And she certainly wasn’t a toy for little girls…

barbie-museum-prague

Lilli on display at the Barbie Museum in Prague 

Unbeknownst to most, Barbie actually started out life in the late 1940s as a German cartoon character created by artist Reinhard Beuthien for the Hamburg-based tabloid, Bild-Zeitung. The comic strip character was known as “Bild Lilli”, a post-war gold-digging buxom broad who got by in life seducing wealthy male suitors.

lillibarbie2

She was famously quick-witted and known to talk back when it came to male authority. In one cartoon, Lilli is warned by a policeman for illegally wearing a bikini out on the sidewalk. Lilli responds, “Oh, and in your opinion, what part should I take off?”

lilibarbie3

She became so popular that in 1953, the newspaper decided to market a three-dimensional which was sold as an adult novelty, available to buy from bars, tobacco kiosks and adult toy stores. They were often given out as bachelor party gag gifts and dangled from a car’s rearview mirror.

lilibarbie4

Fondation Tanagra

bbLilliParents considered the doll inappropriate for children and a German brochure from the 1950s described Lilli as “always discreet,” and with her impressive wardrobe, she was “the star of every bar”. She did indeed have such a wide range of outfits and accessories you could buy for her, that eventually little girls began wanting her as a playdoll too. While toy factories tried to cash in on her popularity with children, Lilli still remained a successful adult novelty, especially outside of Germany. A journalist for The New Yorker magazine, Ariel Levy, later referred to Lilli as a “sex doll”.

 

handler

In the 1950s, one of the founders of Mattel, Ruth Handler (pictured above), was travelling to Europe and bought a few Lilli dolls to take home. She re-worked the design of the doll and later debuted Barbie at the New York toy fair on March 9, 1959.

lilivsbarbie

Mattel acquired the rights to Bild Lilli in 1964, and production of the German doll ceased. (Funny how Barbie’s lighter skin tone was just about the only noticeable change in the early days).

Lilli-via-Barbie

Fondation Tanangara

And the rest is a history you’re a little more familiar with, and no doubt Mattel is a little more comfortable with.

lilibarbie5

So which version would you prefer? Barbie’s ballsy European precursor or Mattel’s squeaky clean lookalike?

Discover more fascinating history about Bild Lilli and Barbie’s history written by a former designer at Mattel

You might also like

Comments

More in Conversation StartersDon't Be A TouristEditor's PicksHow to start a subcultureLife is MessyOff-Beat & Little Known

Hot Off the Press

Editor's Picks

paristrains

Last Train to Paris

Take the most romantic city in the world and the most romantic way to travel, put the two together and you've got my attention. Paris was the original starting point for the legendary Orient Express ...

Trending 0
102657544_Johnniac_user_console_0009-4-as-Smart-Object-1-copy-550x550

Antique Computer Nostalgia

At the rate computer technology is advancing, photographer Mark Richards' collection of computers are indeed historical. These machines are officially antiques. As someone that enjoys pressing but...

Trending 462
Bohemian_Grove_Camp_-_Garnett,_Sterling,_London

Bohemian Grove: The Secret Society Summer Camp

I just spent the morning finding out everything I can on the Bohemian Grove. For two weeks every summer, the 2,700 acre secured private camp in the Ancient Redwood Forest of Northern California, pl...

Trending 1,336
playboypink

13 Things I Found on the Internet Today (Vol. CXC)

1. The socialite buried wearing a lace nightgown inside her 1964 Ferrari Sandra West was a Beverly Hills socialite and wife of Texas oil tycoon Ike West. When she made her will, she requested th...

Trending 2,510
antleroom

Inside the Shed of the Antlerman

I'm slightly nervous about posting this article. Not only am I a little freaked out by this place myself, but I have a feeling I might get some flak for it. The problem is, I'm completely in awe ...

Trending 3,132