Mattel’s Happy Family of Black Paper Dolls

The toy manufacturer Mattel joined forces in the mid-1960s with the publisher Whitman to bolster the popular Barbie and Skipper brands with sets of paper dolls, a speciality of Whitman’s since the 1930s.  Some authorities think the sheer number and variety of Mattel/Whitman paper dolls produced from the 1970s onward probably dealt the genre its death’s blow by turn of the new century.  Supposedly little girls no longer play with paper dolls: it’s up to the collectors who find them fascinating to hunt down and preserve them.

While researching the recent post on Skipper, I discovered in the stacks a set of these Mattel/Whitman paper dolls, The Happy Family.   I was surprised to see represented multi-generational Black family dressed in conservative, but mod-ish fashions of the mid-seventies instead of figures that more closely corresponded with my idea of Mattel dolls.  What exactly does Cotsen have?

The minimal publishing information on the covers was enough to trace the paper dolls back to the original product line of fashion dolls.  The Whitman logo appears in the upper right-hand corner and the actual imprint, nearly illegible against the border of coarsely woven fabric, states that this is a Whitman book and that Whitman is a subsidiary of Western, better known as the publisher of Little Golden Books.  But the pamphlet is not Whitman’s intellectual property.  Barely readable In the lower right hand corner below the cross-stitching, is a statement by the copyright holder Mattel that “The Happy Family” ®, “Hal,” “Hattie,” and “Hon” are U.S. registered trademarks used here by permission of Mattel.  One of the pages of costumes has a second, much clearer copyright statement without the information about the trademarks.

Three Black fashion dolls preceded “The Happy Family” paper dolls: “Colored Francie” in 1967, which was quickly withdrawn, Christie, Barbie’s best friend, in 1968, and in 1969, Julia, modeled on performer Diahann Carroll. .  The members, dad Hal, mom Hattie, Baby Hon, and the Happy grandparents (purchased separately from the other three), were introduced in 1974 as the friends of the Sunshine Family, Steve, Steffie, Baby Sweets, and the Sunshine grandparents.  The black and the white dolls were made with the same molds for the bodies and heads. The Happy and Sunshine families had a peripheral connection at best with the 1970s Barbie universe.

If not exactly hippies or flower children, the Sunshine Family was more counterculture than the pack Barbie ran with during the Age of Aquarius.  The Sunshines ran a hobby store for a living, maintained a very well furnished art studio in the back of their truck, rode a bicycle built for three, and probably shopped in bulk at the whole foods co-op.  Wholesome and just a little folksy, the Sunshines probably would have been comfortable spending time with the other Mattel dolls who went back to nature in the 1970s..

Promotional photographs for the two toy families suggested that the Happys hung out at the Sunshines’ house (it doesn’t look as if the Happys’ accessories included their own fold-up cardboard digs).  Like the pioneering Christie and Julia Black dolls,the Happys were designed to play supporting roles to the Sunshines.  Even though the black dolls were not equal to the white ones, the fact that they were shown in a domestic space with no apparent barriers between them perhaps reflected the naive hope that if only Black and white people would spent time together, they’d discover how much they had in common and come to like each other.

Both lines were cancelled by Mattel in 1978, but reintroduced in redesigned versions in the 1980s and the early 2000s.  I wasn’t able to figure out if the new Happys were characters in their own right or if they were still supposed to be played with in the shadow of the Sunshines.