For my women’s history class this fall, I’m assigning Marla Miller’s The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (2006) for the first time. I was looking over my review copy from the press the other day, and to my amazement, her introduction starts with a discussion of “Colonial Barbie,” a Barbie produced in 1995 I had never seen or heard of before. She writes,
[A]s a women’s historian studying early America I was drawn to her in both amazement and amusement. Dressed in red, white, and blue, her costume the familiar mantua, petticoat, and mob cap, she would more accurately have been named Revolutionary Barbie, I remember thinking. Most interesting to me, she held in her hand a piece of needlework. Barbie was working on a quilt square, it seemed, depicting an American eagle. Also enclosed in the box was a booklet recounting Barbie’s participation in the American Revolution and explaining the small object she held in her hand. The title of the volume was “The Messenger Quilt.” At first, I assumed that the usually adventuresome Barbie was involved in some sort of spy operation, cleverly inscribing and conveying military intelligence through a seemingly innocent quilt. I was disappointed to learn that the quilt simply, if enthusiastically, celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence with a large red, white, and blue design reading “Happy Birthday, America.”
Poor Barbie–like so many other women in American history, reduced to commemorating the actions of Great Men instead of being a Great Actor herself! Amy Mittelman also used a photo of Colonial Barbie to connect her visit to the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and to Bloomingdale’s 50th Birthday display for Barbie during a trip to New York City last winter. Mittelman wrote, “[b]oth the Colonial Dames and Barbie represent American womanhood and ideals of femininity. Now I just have to figure out how they are connected.” Miller’s book promises to do the job–I’m looking forward to reading and discussing it with my class.
In the course of finding an image of Colonial Barbie to show you, I came across this collection of apparently hand-made colonial and revolutionary Barbie and Ken outfits. (Be sure to click through all of the photos–there’s a First Thanksgiving tableau ca. 1621, and a few gowns in the fashions of the 1770s too. Perhaps the creator will tell us more about this fascinating collection in the comments below? I can’t show you a preview of these costumes, as the photos on that website are copyrighted.)