CLOSE
iStock // Getty
iStock // Getty

Doll Wars: When Barbie Dragged Sindy Into Court

iStock // Getty
iStock // Getty

The two women stood stark naked in court, men wrapping measuring tapes around their hips, busts, and shoulders. Normally sporting long, flowing locks, the two had been stripped of every strand so their bald heads could be compared. Absent any apparel or accessories, it would be up to a Dutch judge to determine whether or not the two looked so much alike that one would have to be destroyed.

On one side of the courtroom was Sindy, a vivacious UK fashion plate that had just been exported by Hasbro; on the other stood Barbie, Mattel’s flagship blonde. Reconfigured for international distribution, Sindy bore a striking resemblance to Barbie—so much so that Mattel felt compelled to haul her into court on accusations of counterfeiting, copyright infringement, and whatever else they could use to challenge her existence. Sindy, their lawyers charged, was nothing more than Barbie’s “unwanted sister.”

At stake was a majority share in the billion-dollar fashion doll market. Despite her congenial personality, Barbie couldn’t afford to play nice.

Sindy's distinctive 1970s-era design (L) and her alleged Barbie-influenced makeover (R). Smirky Becca via Flickr, ronholplc via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Ever since Barbie made her toy aisle debut in 1959, Hasbro has looked on with envy. Accessorized with hundreds of outfits, cars, homes, and boyfriends, she helped catapult Mattel to record revenue in the 1960s and beyond, swatting down challengers with ease.

Eager to mimic her success, Hasbro tried a doll based on The Flying Nun television series; a model named Leggy came later. In the 1980s, they thought Jem and the Holograms would finally topple Barbie from her perch. None produced a single bead of sweat on her tiny, perfect brow.

Having failed to produce a contender themselves, Hasbro decided to look at existing licenses. In the UK, they noticed a doll named Sindy, a demure toy with a sideways glance who sped around on a moped (or pony) and embodied the kind of high-fashion couture originating out of London in the 1960s. By 1985, Sindy was so popular she had captured 80 percent of the doll market in Britain.

Hasbro approached her owner, Pedigree Toys, offering to manufacture and distribute the dolls all over the world. (Notably, Pedigree had once turned down an offer by Mattel to license Barbie for the UK.) The company agreed, and Hasbro executive Stephen Hassenfeld believed they finally had a product that would successfully compete against Barbie.

Sindy’s proportions, however, would have to be reconsidered. Almost cherubic in Britain, her figure would be enhanced for worldwide appeal. Her legs grew longer and slimmer, and her chest began to protrude in a way that recalled Barbie’s sculpted curves. No longer confined to overcast London, she even got a tan—all the better to replicate her California-loving competition.

During a 1988 European toy exhibition, Mattel CEO John Amerman caught wind of Hasbro’s Hassenfeld showing off a Barbie clone to buyers. While Mattel typically laughed off attempts to cut into Barbie’s market share, Sindy was different by virtue of not appearing to be very different. There was a real possibility that consumers, especially young ones, would confuse the two. Sindy even sported an all-pink packaging that had become synonymous with Barbie.

Agitated, Amerman confronted Hassenfeld and told him that pursuing Sindy would never be in his best interests.

Hassenfeld’s reply was chilly. “No one,” he said, “tells me what to do.”

In March of that year, Mattel’s lawyers dispatched a terse letter demanding Hasbro destroy or turn over everything related to Sindy by April 7: sculpts, stock, and plans. But Hasbro had already spent millions in development and advertising and wasn’t about to be cowed. They ignored the deadline, and began shipping Sindy across the globe.

Everywhere she went, Mattel’s lawyers followed. Sindy was impounded in France, where courts were persuaded by Mattel’s argument of a counterfeit Barbie. Other countries allowed her to be sold without reservation.

In a series of court cases, lawyers for both sides presented their respective dolls for the court’s examination. In one bit of testimony, the size and depth of Sindy’s nostrils became a point of contention. It was argued that Sindy’s nose was more pointed, with deeper nasal passages. Crucially, Hasbro’s sculptors had not altered her chest to the point where her breasts were as disproportionately large as Barbie’s, and the company asserted that was enough to make the two distinct.

By 1992, millions of dollars in legal fees had been spent arguing over the size and shape of doll breasts, with no end in sight.

Sindy in happier times. Sindy.com

That year, a representative for Hasbro named Barry Alperin requested a meeting with two of Mattel’s top executives, including newly installed CEO Jill Barad. Opening a suitcase, Alperin revealed five distinct, disembodied Sindy heads. He requested that Barad choose one that she felt was a comfortable enough distance from Barbie’s features.

Barad chose a Sindy head Mattel could live with. The legal battle was over.

Hasbro never had great success in the U.S. with Sindy, which went through several iterations before being dropped in 1998. Pedigree re-launched her in 2006 and again via a licensing agreement with the Tesco store chain in late 2016, taking care to present a doll and personality far removed from Barbie’s. At 18 inches, she towers over her former rival and sticks with sneakers or sandals. No heels, and no dream house.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
chartaediania, eBay
arrow
#TBT
The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
Chartaediania, eBay

Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
MECC
arrow
#TBT
Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios