Avid Barbie collector Ann Yeatman of Columbus holds the first Barbie and Ken dolls she had as a child. Yeatman converted a wet bar in her living room into "Barbie Boulevard," to hold some of her many collectibles. At far left, a few branches of a white year-round "Barbie tree" decorated with dozens of ornaments can be seen. The iconic fashion doll was first introduced to the world in March, 1959. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Ann Yeatman shows a few of the garments her mother and grandmother made for her Barbie and Ken dolls when Yeatman was a child. The carrying case is her first, from childhood. The game is a replica of the 1961 Barbie Queen of the Prom board game.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Ann Yeatman demonstrates how her Barbie telephone works. The receiver, when lowered, forms the lower section of a staircase ascending to Barbie on stage, dressed in one of her most recognizable early outfits, "Solo in the Spotlight."
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
January 7, 2017 10:02:23 PM
Barbie may be turning 58 this year, but she's perfectly preserved -- a few hundred times over -- at Ann Yeatman's house east of Columbus. Ann didn't necessarily set out to live surrounded by so many perky fashionistas, but it has happened, nevertheless. Things started innocently enough.
"I'd play with them all the time when I was little. I had the best time," the collector says with a sentimental smile. She still has her very first Barbie, a gift from her mother. She has her original Ken, too. They live, dressed in wedding day finery, on Barbie Boulevard -- a converted wet bar in Ann's living room. The plastic couple has plenty of neighbors, more than 200 at best guess. Lots of them stay dressed to the nines day in and day out, ready for an impromptu ball in shimmering gowns and accessories. These are collectible Holiday Barbies, acquired annually and still in their packaging.
Others channel famous personalities -- Barbie as Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball and even actress Tippi Hedren (yes, shooing birds, as in 1963's "The Birds"). And if anyone on the boulevard feels like taking a spin, there's a cool '57 Chevy, a VW and flashy pink Corvette parked nearby.
When Ann's first daughter, Ivye, was born 25 years ago, the collection began to grow in earnest. After two boys, having a girl in the house -- and later, a second daughter -- made following Barbie even more fun. Dolls and collectibles came through the door, some to play with, others to remain pristine in their boxes.
"Any store I go into, the first thing I do is go to the toy department," says Ann. "I love the Barbie attention to detail. Mattel doesn't miss a thing." the speech language pathologist adds.
Along with dolls, Yeatman's home holds porcelain Barbie plates neatly displayed on walls, Barbie figurines in Faberge-style eggs and Barbie figure ornaments ready for everything from the runway to the soccer field. Ann is a "Barbie Girl in a Barbie World," to borrow the title of 1997's chart-topping tune by the pop group Aqua. She makes no apologies.
"I just have a spirit for Barbie," she explains, lovingly handling frocks her mother and grandmother made for her Barbie and Ken when Ann was a child. Each handmade garment is on a tiny hanger inside her first carrying case. (A case was de rigueur for every little girl and her doll.)
"You can tell I played with it all," she says, putting the treasured and well-used wardrobe back in place.
Ann Yeatman is like millions of others who became fascinated by the doll first introduced March 9, 1959, at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Barbie was the brainchild, so to speak, of Ruth Handler, whose husband co-founded toy company Mattel in 1945. Handler had noticed her own daughter, Barbara, passing up her baby dolls to play make-believe with paper dolls of a grown female. It sparked an idea that would revolutionize the doll market.
At first, toy buyers were somewhat skeptical of the 11-inch-tall bombshell, with her high ponytail, black-and-white swimsuit and improbable figure. She was the first mass-produced doll in the U.S. with adult features, and she sold for $3.
As the doll began making its way into American homes, however, Handler's instincts proved solid. Within the first year, Mattel sold 300,000 figures, the toy's biography reveals. The estimated number of Barbies sold to date, according to statisticbrain.com, is in excess of one billion. Original mint boxed Barbies from 1959 have gone for $3,000 to $27,000, according to various websites, including mashable.com. Not that Yeatman anticipates selling her dolls and memorabilia. She collects because it brings pleasure, because it connects her to her childhood and with her daughters.
Ivye Yeatman teaches music at West Lowndes Elementary School now; her first Barbie was a gift from her older brothers, brought to the hospital to celebrate her birth a quarter-century ago. That very doll is safe at her mother's house today, a Birthday Party Barbie, still in the packaging. While Ivye eventually gravitated toward sports and music, she appreciates her immersion into Barbies at an early age and that bond with her parent.
"It's all stuck with me ... like our miniature Barbie tree that went in my room," she says. "I loved that tree so much and still have it."
The heritage doll has undergone plenty of changes in the past 58 years. Facial features have evolved, as have hairstyles and colors. Plastic friends of several ethnicities have been introduced. Ken was given the "Dear John" boot in 2004. Fashion model Barbie has now had more than 100 careers -- from astronaut to doctor, pilot to presidential candidate.
"I had the scuba diving Barbie that I played with all the time, and I just wanted to be her," remembers Ivye, who went on to join the Columbus swim team, as well as play basketball, softball and tennis.
In 2016, Mattel gave their signature girl a major makeover, announcing 23 updated models, with new body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles -- more reflective of the world children see around them.
Whether all the "new" Barbies find their way into Ann's collection remains to be seen. Some days she wishes she had the wet bar back, she jokes, "and I've run out of room!"
Any additions would have a hard time replacing her favorite pieces, like the Barbie telephone. The receiver doubles as part of a gleaming black stairway leading to a glamorous Barbie on stage at the microphone. She wears a glittering outfit all fans of a certain age would recognize: the black "Solo in the Spotlight" gown. Demonstrating how the phone works makes Ann chuckle, hinting at the delight she derives from her hobby.
"I just love them," she says of it all. "I just love the whole phenomenon."
Ivye may not go on to collect Barbies with her own children, but she's convinced they will become collectors of something, inspired by her mother.
"It's made me appreciate collecting," she says. "That you just don't buy stuff to just buy it. It has to have meaning behind it."
As to her own personal favorites, the Birthday Party Barbie her brothers gave her at birth is one of the first things Ivye would try to save in a hypothetical fire.
"And probably the 'Lucy' ones. I love Lucille Ball; she's my role model," she laughs. "... Actually, I would just start throwing Barbies out the window."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.