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My original Barbie and Ken collection, dating from 1959 and 1960

The general store in Charlevoix of 1959 seems so quaint when I think back on it now; the wide floorboards, the glass display cases and large open shelving. I wonder if my Sarason grandfather’s store in turn-of-the-century St. Louis was similar. We vacationed in this northern Michigan resort destination for five summers and the morning walk into town while Dad played golf was part of the ritual with my mother.

This particular morning, as I browsed the toy aisle, I discovered a treasure. Barbie was all the rage and there she was on the shelf. I had begged my mother for one. She finally obliged and the blonde bombshell was mine! I was 6 1/2 years old, a shy child, prone to fantasy. I made up stories with my dolls at the center. Now I needed some clothes with which to dress her. Then my best friend, who lived next door, and I met every Saturday and played grown-up games of what life would be like, acting it all out with Barbie.

I didn’t care that her dimensions were impossible, that in real life she wouldn’t be able to stand. None of that meant anything to my almost 7-year-old self. Birthday and Chanukkah presents were easy for years to come: always more clothes for Barbie. One friend gave me a brunette Barbie and fancy case for my birthday that year, a Ken doll and case the next year.

Her official title was “Barbie, Teen Age Fashion Model”. Each outfit came with a booklet describing all available outfits and accompanying accessories. I kept those booklets all over my house – bathroom reading material. I had a prioritzed wishlist of outfits. I knew my parents had bought many and put them aside for various occasions. So when I had teeth pulled under anesthetic, I awoke and was rewarded with the ballerina outfit…very high on my wishlist. I loved dressing her up and making up stories about what she was doing, where she was going, who she was meeting. My parents protested about the number of outfits I wanted; said that I would outgrow the love affair with Barbie at some point, but I protested. I said when I had a real boyfriend, I’d act out my dates with my Barbie doll. I really did live in a fantasy world.

I never had any of the other Mattel add-ons that came after the originals, no Bouffant Barbie. I had no use for the Malibu Dream House. I created my own objects to surround my Barbie. My teacher told my mother that my manual dexterity was poor, so my mother taught me to knit. The little knitting samples became the rugs in her home. Opening her clothing case became her walls. She didn’t need a best friend or sister. I was that for her.

Eventually, I did outgrow the desire to play with dolls of any kind. The last time I dressed up the dolls was in 8th grade. We studied the Civil War. I read Gone with the Wind on my own, for pleasure, but for my project at the end of the unit, I went to my sewing machine and created dresses for the two Barbies, representing the North and the South. Of course, the dark-haired Barbie was the South, like Scarlet O’Hara, and I dressed her in an approximation of the dress she wears in the barbecue scene. I used the little bands from my braces to put their pony tails up in a bun. You can see how I dressed Blonde Barbie in the Featured Image, as I put her away all those years ago, still dressed in her Civil War finery.

I still have every piece of my Barbie collection, from shoes, sunglasses, purses, catalogues, even a book published to mark her 40th anniversary. I don’t know what it is all worth. I used to joke that I could send my kids to college if I ever sold it. I don’t think it’s that valuable (I did play with it, after all – no original box, not in mint condition). But the memories for me make it priceless.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. I found this story to be quite touching, Betsy. I particularly like the way you ended it, with how priceless your Barbie collection is to you, no matter the value on the collectors’ circuit. I can see how it would be so priceless. I don’t think I have any of my toys from childhood. How wise of you to have saved your Barbie collection, and how touching that you would share these precious memories with us!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Steve. I also still have a stuffed animal given to me by my grandfather. I referenced it a different story. I brought it to camp when I was a young camper. I hope you are doing well, dear friend. We are in the midst of a blizzard here. I’ll email.

  2. Suzy says:

    Love this story, Betsy. I wasn’t into dolls as a child, so I didn’t get fully exposed to Barbie until my daughters got interested in them. My two memories from those times: In kindergarten, on the 100th day of school, the kids were required to bring in 100 of some object, and my daughter brought in 100 Barbie shoes. Then in 4th grade, when studying the California missions, they had to make 3 artifacts along with their model of the mission. My daughter dressed a Barbie in a long black dress, with a lace mantilla, and a cross made out of fuse-beads, to be “Nuestra Señora de los Dolores” at Mission Dolores in SF.

  3. mike7353 says:

    Funny and sweet story, Betsy. Glad to learn you kept your collection and it is precious to you.

  4. Patricia says:

    Yes, it was all about the clothes! “Fur” coats, career outfits, uniforms, ski clothes, wedding dresses, etc. And OMG the accessories… I still have all of mine too.

  5. marykmurphy says:

    This story brings back many happy memories of playing Barbies with my sisters and friends! We had the Barbie that had 3 different wigs- blond, brunette, and red!

  6. John Zussman says:

    This is a great story throughout, but I especially love your Barbie Gone with the Wind reenactment. Did Ken play Rhett or Ashley? At any rate, I’m glad Barbie became the sister you never had, just as you became hers.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, John. Ken did not play a part in my Civil War project. My Barbies represented the North and South and gave me a platform for oral discussion in class. Because I had recently read and adored GWTW, I modeled my “South” to look a bit like Scarlet, but this wasn’t a reenactment. One friend made a southern mansion out of sugar cubes. We were artsy kids. For a project on the 20s, we dressed like flappers and danced the Charleston and Varsity Drag. Eighth grade was a trip.

  7. Betsy, we’re seeing the film tonite, so glad you posted this story on FB as it was on Retro before my time!

    My son when to grade school with the son of the Handlers who founded Mattel. The name of boy’s father was Ken!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Happy that you got to read this old story, Dana. My understanding, based an a recent article I read about the founder, was that her kids were named Barbara and Ken, but you would know better.

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