Most people are familiar with the story of the Barbie doll. Launched at the New York Toy Fair on March 9th 1959, the doll was initially shunned by toy buyers, but, marketed to children through a television ad campaign, became a best seller. The first doll of her kind made for children, in the USA the Barbie doll was without any real competition for the first couple of years, but many competitors and copies were soon on the market. Adapting and changing with the times, the Barbie doll is the biggest selling doll in history and has cemented its status as a pop culture icon. However, unlike the USA, the Barbie doll did not have the market to its self in Australia; there was competition almost as soon as it was launched.
The Toy Industry in Australia in the 1950’s and 1960’s was very different to today, where a few huge multinational toy companies dominate the market and almost all toys are manufactured in Asia. Many local toy companies flourished and a lot of toys were manufactured in Australia. There were many thriving independent toy shops, large department stores such as Myer and Grace Brothers, newsagents, some chemists and even some milk bars also sold toys. Discount stores such as G.J. Coles and Co. and Woolworths were also beginning to sell cheaper, good quality toy lines. Overseas companies wishing to export their products often didn’t do so directly, instead licensing an Australian based company to import and market the toy. It was in this way that the Barbie doll made her way to Australia.
It was the 18th April 1964 when the Barbie doll was launched at the Toy Fair in Melbourne by Kiddicraft (Aust) Pty. Ltd., the Australian arm of the British company Kiddicraft. Initially both ponytail and bubble cut dolls were available and sold for 27/6 (roughly $2.75). Thirty six outfits were also available including, ‘Sheath Sensation’, ‘American Airlines Stewardess’, ‘Solo in the Spotlight’, ‘Career Girl’ and ‘Ski Queen’ ranging in price from 13/9 ($1.40) to 33/6 ($3.50). An immediate hit, by July, Kiddicraft stated that the dolls were ‘Now selling with sensational success in Australia’. In fact, the Barbie doll was selling so well internationally, that the Mattel factories could not keep up with demand and Kiddicraft (Aust) Pty. Ltd. found they were unable to supply their customers. In order to meet the Christmas demand they took the almost unprecedented step of air freighting stock in.
Also in 1964, Cyclops & Lines Bros. (Aust.) Ltd., the Australian branch of the British company Lines Bros which incorporated Pedigree dolls, launched their Sindy doll. The same price as the Barbie doll and with her own wardrobe of fashions ranging in price from 19/11 ($1.90) to 35/- ($3.50), the Sindy doll was just as popular as the Barbie doll, selling well even before the award winning Sindy television ad campaign had begun.
For many a child and parent, the Sindy doll may have been a more popular choice than the Barbie doll. In 1964, culturally, Australia was closer to England than to America. The Barbie doll with her very middle class American wardrobe may not have been as appealing as a doll with British sensibilities and a slightly hipper wardrobe. The Barbie doll’s mature figure may also have been deemed inappropriate by parents, prompting them instead to buy the less shapely Sindy doll. Whatever the reasons, both dolls and their wardrobes sold extremely well.
In 1965, dolls were added to both the Barbie doll and Sindy doll ranges, and new competitors entered the fashion doll fray. The Barbie Wig Wardrobe and Cut and Colour sets (10 guineas) were released, together with the Barbie doll’s best friend Midge (27/6), boyfriend Ken (29/11) and little sister Skipper (27/6) while Barbie’s wardrobe contained fifty fashions as well as Ken and Skipper fashions. The Sindy doll’s boyfriend Paul (29/11) and his wardrobe joined the Sindy line which was so popular, Cyclops & Lines Bros. (Aust.) Ltd. were unable to meet the demand for dolls, having to also resort to bringing stock in by air freight.
In October 1965, the Little Tuppence doll was launched. Made by the New Zealand company Lincoln International and distributed through their Australian branch, Little Tuppence was a cute eight inch high fashion doll with her own wardrobe of twelve fashions. Smaller and more childlike than the Barbie and Sindy dolls but still with a sophisticated wardrobe and accessories, Little Tuppence was an immediate success. Selling at a slightly lower price than the Barbie and Sindy dolls (25/-, roughly $2.50), her outfits cost from 15/- ($1.50) to 29/11 ($2.90). Advertised in a TV campaign and in in-store promotions that included girls dressed as the doll, Little Tuppence also sponsored an entire episode of the popular Johnny O’Keefe show ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, and eventually had her own five minute TV show called the ‘Little Tuppence Club’.
BX Plastics (Australia) Pty. Limited released the Tressy doll late in 1965. Marketed under license, the English company Palitoy version of Tressy was the doll sold here, not the USA American Character Doll Co. doll. The Tressy doll had a feature that set her apart from other dolls. A strand of hair could be lengthened or retracted for the ultimate in hair play. The most expensive of the teenage fashion dolls, Tressy sold for 37/6 ($3.75) while her eleven outfits ranged in price from 17/3 ($1.75) to 31/- ($3). Heavily advertised before Christmas, Tressy starred in her own thirty second TV commercial.
G.J. Coles and Co. Ltd. stocked the Ideal Tammy doll and the Tina Cassini doll by Ross Products. The Tammy doll sold for 15/- ($1.50), considerably less than the Sindy doll that she closely resembled. It’s somewhat ironic, as the Sindy doll was based on the Tammy doll and many collectors see the Sindy doll as an inferior copy. The Tammy doll had several outfits in her wardrobe which also sold for 15/-. Tina Cassini, a doll similar in proportion to the Sindy and Tammy dolls, sold for 25/-, while her designer wardrobe was priced at 15/-. Woolworths stocked Princess Patti, a doll very similar to the Barbie doll but of inferior quality. Available in 12 different outfits for 7/6 ($0.75), she also had 24 additional outfits at 5/- each ($0.50). A range of Susie Goose Toys furniture, the perfect scale for teenage fashion dolls was also available. A four poster bed, wardrobe and dressing table all sold for 50/- ($5).
Kiddicraft introduced bendable leg dolls to the Barbie doll line in 1966. Their trader ad’s stated: ‘Demonstrate to your customers how the legs operate on a ball joint just like a human leg’. Barbie ($4 or non-bend leg $2.79), Midge ($4 or non-bend leg $2.79), Ken ($4.25 or non-bend leg $3), Skipper ($2.79), Skooter ($2.79), Ricky ($2.79) and Tutti doll ($2.45 – $4) were all available and new fashions for all were added to the range. The Sindy doll’s little sister Patch ($2.55), the Tammy doll’s sister Pepper ($1.25) and the Little Tuppence doll’s pal Posing Penny ($2) were also released and outfits were added to all lines. GJ Coles added the Fifi doll – yet another Barbie doll look alike – to their range of dolls. Fifi sold for 75 cents and her outfits, many of which were copies of outfits worn by the Barbie, Sindy and Tammy dolls sold for 50 cents.
In 1967, 4 different one minute commercials introduced the new Twist and Turn Barbie and her Mod cousin Francie to Australian children. Each doll had their own wardrobe of ‘swinging outfits’. By 1969, Mattel had established Mattel Australia in Melbourne, Victoria and a full range of TNT dolls and their celebrity friend Julia were available.
While not every doll or accessory in the Barbie doll line has been available in Australia, the Barbie doll range has consistently been one of the biggest selling girls toy range here. Barbie’s early competitors didn’t last long, most were gone from shelves by 1970, but many more were to be launched in the following decades. Of all the competitors only the Sindy doll has stood the test of time, surviving in one form or another to the present day, however not all incarnations have been available in Australia. The Bratz dolls by MGA and launched in 2001 and Mattel’s own Monster High dolls have been the only real competition for the Barbie doll in recent times, but as popular as they are, the Barbie doll is still holding her own, here in Australia and overseas.
The Barbie doll and her competitors: (from left) Tressy by Palitoy, Skipper, Barbie by Mattel, Little Tuppence (front) by Lincoln International, Sindy, Patch by Pedigree, Tammy, Pepper by Ideal and Tina Cassini by Ross Products.