Barbara Millicent Roberts, better known as Barbie, first appeared to the public at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. Since then, Mattel’s iconic doll has embarked on over 130 careers as everything from a lifeguard to a paratrooper. Of course, such a range of professions increases the toy company’s marketing scope when it comes to clothing and accessories (not to mention the figures themselves), but the doll’s diversity also represents a variety of aspirational ideals for young girls.
“Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices,” explains creator Ruth Handler. And nursing is one of the earliest careers at which Barbie tried her plastic hand: Registered Nurse Barbie was released in 1961. What’s more, over the years various Barbie figures have followed suit – adding to the representation of nurses in popular culture – and some of these toys have gone on to become valuable collector’s items. Read on for the 10 coolest Barbie dolls inspired by nursing.
10. Registered Nurse Barbie (1961)
Registered Nurse Barbie first appeared in 1961, just two years after Barbie was introduced at the New York Toy Fair. The doll showcases Barbie dressed in a then-contemporary nursing outfit, complete with a classic white uniform, a red lined navy cape, and a white nurse’s cap. However, one registered nurse has pointed out that the doll’s white heels aren’t as authentic. According to her, “hard soled nursing shoes” were more the order of the day. “And they better [have been] polished!” she added. The figure also displays the trademark sideways glance Barbie dolls featured until 1971. This version was re-released in 2010 as a collector’s edition (see entry four).
9. Nurse Julia (1969)
In 1955, Elizabeth Lipford Kent entered the history books as the first African American to be awarded a PhD in nursing. And in 1968, NBC sitcom Julia became one of the first weekly television shows to portray an African American female in a non-stereotypical role. Diahann Carroll played widowed single mom and nurse Julia Baker from 1968 to 1971, and in 1969, Carroll’s character became a Celebrity Barbie Doll – one of the first in the series. Mattel released five different outfits for Julia, and of course she was also able to wear all of the regular Barbie clothes as well.
While the character Julia Baker is said to have “challenged stereotypes and changed perceptions,” the first African American doll in the wider Barbie range didn’t appear until 1980. However, the importance of the Julia model was celebrated again when Mattel issued a reproduction of the doll in 2009 (see entry three).
8. Nurse Whitney (1987)
Whitney may have only appeared as one of Barbie’s “Barbie-sized female friends” for a couple of years in the late 1980s, but the actual figure itself has more of a historical back-story. The Whitney doll used the head mold of Barbie’s friend Steffie, which was introduced in 1972 and has been described as having one of the most attractive faces across the entire Barbie range. Mattel only ever released three Steffie dolls (all in 1972), but the Steffie face has become hugely popular among Barbie collectors. The mold has also been used for an array of ethnicities in the regular Barbie range.
Although Whitney managed to become a nurse in 1987 – complementing doctor dolls of both Barbie and Ken – Steffie herself never achieved the same goal. Still, this hasn’t stopped sellers from using Steffie as a model for Barbie nursing uniforms online.
7. Civil War Nurse Barbie (1996)
“Travel to the battle at Gettysburg as Barbie,” reads the promotional line for Civil War Nurse Barbie. The doll is part of Mattel’s American Stories Collection, which was released in the 1990s and features a series of eight dolls reflecting early American history. Civil War Nurse Barbie showcases an authentic-looking white and blue striped dress, a white apron, a cape coat and a medical bag. The doll is also accompanied by a storybook to teach children about life during the Civil War period.
The figures in the American Stories Series have been described as some of the best quality Barbie dolls ever made. However, perhaps because young girls and collectors regarded the series as quite modest-seeming on the whole, it concluded after three years with the colorful and ornate Patriot Barbie, complete with white-feathered hat, gold-trimmed outfit and a miniature gold Liberty Bell.
6. The Nurse (2006)
Introduced in 2000 and still in production today, Silkstone Barbie Dolls get their name from the fact that their hard plastic construction resembles porcelain. The look of the dolls has made them very popular with vintage Barbie collectors. Also known as Fashion Model Barbie and Lingerie Model Barbie, the collection spawned a career line, too – including this African American Silkstone Nurse Barbie, released in 2006.
A Caucasian colleague was released at the same time as the African American model, and both dolls have neat white-belted dresses, matching caps, navy capes, and white Mary Jane shoes. According to the write-up, the doll “celebrates the working woman.” The African American version is a Barbie Fan Club exclusive and is quite rare these days. Well-known Mattel designer Robert Best created the doll. And Best’s profile was raised even further when he appeared on the third season of Bravo’s Project Runway, also in 2006.
5. Kelly Nurse Doll (2008)
Kelly was launched in the mid 1990s as Barbie’s toddler sister, adding to the original doll’s ever expanding set of family and friends. One Kelly enthusiast, however, notes that there are substantial similarities in body height, appearance and marketing concepts between Kelly and some of the dolls in Mattel’s unrelated “Liddle Kiddles” line, which ran from 1966 to 1971.
Kelly appeared in a variety of guises – ready for the pool, dressed up as an alien for Halloween, and even as Alice in Wonderland – before she was replaced by the Chelsea doll in 2010. This nurse model is part of a line that also depicts Kelly as a jockey, a chef and a ballet dancer.
4. Registered Nurse Barbie Reproduction (2009)
This stylish Registered Nurse Barbie reproduction is a new version of the classic 1961 Registered Nurse Barbie doll, and it was released in December 2009. The doll is part of the My Favorite Barbie series, which was launched in 2009 to celebrate Barbie’s 50th anniversary. The series paid homage to some of Barbie’s iconic career choices over the years. It features a faithful replication of the 1960s nurse’s clothing, and accessories include a hot water bottle, a medicine bottle and spoon, glasses, and a nursing diploma. Judging by online reviews, present-day nurses have received the reproduction positively. One even remembered playing with similar models when she was a child.
3. Nurse Julia Reproduction (2009)
As another tie-in with Barbie’s 2009 50th anniversary celebration, Mattel reissued its historic Nurse Julia doll. Based on the groundbreaking, stereotype-challenging TV character discussed earlier, the doll is a stylish, lovingly made reproduction of the 1969 Twist ‘n Turn original. Like the 1969 version, the toy features rooted eyelashes and the trademark Twist ‘n Turn waist.
The doll was created by designer Bill Greening, who started collecting Barbie figures in 1987 before studying fashion design at California State University, Long Beach. Greening explains, “Barbie was ultra glamorous, the fantasy of the perfect teenage girl.” Greening also recreated Nurse Julia’s vintage outfit, perfectly replicating her elegant looking white uniform and stylish yet practical nurse’s shoes.
2. Barbie I Can Be… Nurse (2012)
The Barbie I Can Be… line is a recently released addition to the Barbie range. As its name suggests, the line aims to promote different careers among young girls. The Mattel website itself suggests that the I Can Be… dolls can “inspire young minds to dream big.” The site also adds the inspirational message, “Rise to the top of your field, and dream out the kind of life you want to lead. It’s all up to you!”
Special-edition Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic and African American President Barbie dolls were produced during the 2012 US election period. Mattel’s Vice President of Barbie Brand Marketing in North America Cathy Cline said, “Being President culminates Barbie’s career path. She stands for inspiring girls to be informed and involved in their local communities.” However, Barbie’s customary penchant for “fashion flair” remains – as can be seen from the new nurse model’s stylish and well put-together outfit.
1. Barbie I Can Be… Nurse African American (2012)
The African American version of the 2012 I Can Be… Nurse Barbie doll shows how much times have changed since the first Barbie nurse variant was introduced in the early 1960s. No longer in possession of a white smock, this doll, like her Caucasian colleague, features a contemporary look of “kid-friendly scrubs.” Accessories include a badge, a stethoscope, an otoscope and a charting book. And as a further concession to the times, a code within each box provides access to special career-themed content on the web that, according to Mattel, “creates a digital destination to further try on the role.” Barbie’s African American friend Nikki also appears as a pediatrician in the I Can Be… line.