Meet Lilli, the Call-Girl Doll Who Became Our Barbie

The history behind the Barbie doll nearly every American little girl grows with is actually kind of dirty. It turns out that Barbie’s predecessor, Lilli, was not a gift for little girls at all. She was a gag gift of sorts, a doll of a high-end call girl folks would dangle from their rearview mirrors. It goes back even farther than this, however.

Barbie 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.” This Lilli character was a post-war sugar baby who seduced wealthy men.

Not only was this pre-Barbie doll a gold-digger, she was far more badass than Barbie could ever be. She would talk back at male authority figures. For instance, she once yelled at a policeman for bothering her about illegally wearing a bikini out on the sidewalk. Her response: “Oh, and in your opinion, what part should I take off?”

That’s right. Lilli was a feminist. Unlike Barbie.

It was 1953 that the cartoon character became the plastic doll that rose to unusual heights of popularity with adults. Lilli was for sale at tobacco shops, sex shops, and even bars!

In the 1950s, one of the founders of Mattel, Ruth Handler, was traveling in Europe and bought a few Lilli dolls. She re-worked the design of the doll and later debuted Barbie at the New York toy fair on March 9, 1959. Mattel acquired the rights to Bild Lilli in 1964, and production of the German doll ceased.

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