welcome to the dollhouse
Artist Michèle Karch-Ackerman collects Barbies and other Mid-century dolls.
I wasn’t the sort of girl who pulled off the heads of her Barbies; I’ve adored dolls since I was a little girl. For that reason, my childhood collection remained intact. The collection included one 1966 Tutti (Barbie and Skipper’s little sister) and one Chris (Tutti’s little friend), one Francie (with a set of six wigs) and one Skipper (with ringlets).
I didn’t think too much of my little collection until I met Dr Anne Clendinning, a history professor here in Ontario, Canada. Anne had a premier collection of 300 vintage Barbies! When she showed me her Barbies, I almost passed out with joy.
Anne gave me my first Midge. A few years after I met her, she received a breast-cancer diagnosis. After she died, I found it comforting as I grieved for her to organise all the little bits and bobs she’d given me. Then I found a website that details all the clothes and dolls manufactured from 1959 to the early ’70s. It was from then that I truly began my Barbie collection in honour of my friend. Every time I add to it, I can feel Anne beaming from above.
The Barbie story is fascinating. In a nutshell: Ruth Handler (who started Mattel) wanted a teenage doll for her daughter, Barbara. On a trip to Europe she found an interesting doll called a Bild Lilli (which was actually a ‘sexy’ cigar-store doll for men) that she thought could work for tweens. She used the Bild Lilli as a model for the new doll she christened Barbie and had it manufactured in Japan. There was some backlash from mums who felt that Barbie was too sexy and so Midge (Barbie’s funky friend) was introduced along with Ken and Allan. Skipper came next with a real girl’s body shape. Francie was introduced in 1966 as the young British cousin with an adolescent girl’s shape. She is my favourite doll and looks just like Claudine Longet.
Collecting vintage Barbies is amazing because it’s a snapshot of history. You can almost feel the energy of childhood and the essence of ‘playing’ when you hold these dolls.
There are different Barbie eras to collect: The Vintage Era, which dates from 1959–1966 and the Mod Era which dates from 1967–1972. The clothing from the Vintage period is exquisitely detailed and beautifully sewn with lovely fabric. The Mod period is like an Austin Powers film come to life.
I have 46 dolls so far: nine Barbies from different time periods; four of her friend Midge; six of her elegant British cousin Francie; 11 of her sister Skipper; two of her littlest sister Tutti; three of her boyfriend Ken and one of Midge’s boyfriend, Allan. I have a couple of vintage GI Joe dolls (and their astronaut equipment) and a Tammy and a Sindy and a couple of wonkier British dolls from the same time period.
It’s interesting how Barbie’s appearance has changed. The earliest versions are quite intense and not very human-like, but over time Barbie developed more natural features. There are also differences in hair styles and the introduction of movable waists and bendable legs.
The biggest fun is in finding them, and the fewer dollars spent, the more fun happens. I went to one vintage toy sale and paid a little more than op-shop prices for a few outfits in mint condition. The most I ever paid for a vintage Midge was $100. It’s all in the search. However, it is getting harder and harder to find vintage Barbies. If you find one, you have struck gold!
See more from Michele on Instagram at @michelekarchackerman.