Product pictured: Barbie Dream House
Your garage holds more than just your cars and rarely-used power tools. It holds the potential for greatness. The wide-open floorplan and separation from the rest of the house mean that the garage is the perfect room for making noise. As countless hobbyist handymen or teenage bands have discovered, many projects are best pursued out of the way of parents or spouses. The garage is a blank canvas large enough to hold your supplies for any DIY project, large or small. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the greatest companies in the world, and many of the most important inventions, got their starts in garages.
Join us as we explore these achievements through a running blog series, updated every Monday. We’re interested in learning all there is to know about the creativity produced in the most pivotal garages in history, and we’ll bring all of our findings straight to you.
Welcome to Garage Greatness.
Dream House DIY: Building a Toy Empire
Did you know that Mattel got their start in a garage? Mattel is the Fortune-500 toy manufacturing company responsible for several of the biggest names in toys; Fisher-Price, Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl, Matchbox, and several other household names are produced entirely by this American powerhouse. Want to read all about how newlyweds Ruth and Elliot Handler began Mattel in two different garages, over a decade of their lives? We’ve got you covered.
The story of Mattel begins with the couple that founded the company. Ruth Mosko first saw Isadore Elliot Handler while she was driving in her brand-new 1932 Ford coupe. Although he was oblivious to her gaze, Isadore soon learned of Ruth when he attended a Craps game that Ruth’s older brother was hosting. Upon seeing Ruth’s picture on the mantel, Isadore decided that he had to meet the enchanting beauty. It was two weeks later, at a nickel dance, that the two met, danced, and kindled an instant attraction.
The young couple went on many dates over the next four years while Isadore pursued an art degree on scholarship. Ruth was making $25 a week as a stenographer at Paramount Studios and Isadore was designing lighting fixtures while getting his degree. By 1938, the two were financially stable and decided to get married. On their way back to Los Angeles after the wedding, Ruth convinced Isadore to start going by his middle name, Elliot, which would in short order become part of their company’s name.
The newlyweds lived in poor conditions, in a tiny roach-infested apartment, until an available property in Hollywood caught their eye while out on a Sunday drive. The apartment cost $10 more monthly than their current accommodations, but came with space and the usage of half the two-car garage. On impulse, the couple moved into this new apartment, setting them on the course to greatness.
As part of his ongoing education, Elliot was taking industrial design classes focused on lucite, a new kind of plastic. The desire to create and design with this new material soon eclipsed his other artistic pursuits and the couple decided to gamble on the quality of Elliot’s work. He had been shaping small items for their personal use around the home for some time, so the couple bought $200 of equipment from Sears on credit and filled every moment of his free time with this new project.
This project took place entirely inside their garage.
Of course, quickly their neighboring tenant began to complain about the mess that Elliot was making in the garage and after some consideration, the couple decided to invest further into this new passions. Elliot quit both his job and school to produce samples full time, now from a rented workshop, and Ruth used her spare time to try and sell her husband’s work. Both members of the partnership were talented, and their venture quickly grew.
Elliot partnered with a well-known jeweler in 1941 and founded the company Elzac, a combination of their names Elliot and Zachary. By 1943, Elzac pieces were appearing on starlets, in Sears catalogues, and at the Elzac storefront in Los Angeles. In 1944, however, Zachary brought new partners into the growing company and Elliot began to experience creative differences with the new partners. Within the year, the couple had their second child and also left Elzac, returning to private work.
This bad news did not come alone, as soon afterwards word came through that lucite was being restricted to military usage. Elliot and Ruth made a plan to reconnect with Elliot’s prior boss at the light fixture company, a man named Harold “Matt” Matson, and to convince him to go into business with them. The found Matt hard at work inside his garage, and it was inside that very garage that Matt and Elliot combined their names into Mattel, founding a company that will outlive both of them by decades.
Matt agreed to make picture frames using Elliot’s designs, and soon the trio were back in business making frames for commercial usage. Within the next two years, Elliot sold his share of Elzac for $10,000 shortly before the company’s demise and Matt sold Elliot and Ruth his shares of Mattel due to his declining health. Mattel becomes entirely Elliot and Ruth Handler’s company.
Quality wood was expensive, so Elliott took to using the scraps left over from the production of picture frames to build dollhouse furniture. Using the same design acumen that had carried him through his life so far, Elliot made highly successful furniture, and eventually realized that his side project was seeing more success than Mattel’s picture frames. In 1947, Mattel releases the Uke-a-Doodle, a child-sized ukulele that marks the beginning of Mattel’s musical toy line. The company’s focus was now entirely on toys.
All the pieces continued to fall into place. Mattel partnered with The Mickey Mouse Club television show in 1955, advertising toys in ways never before seen, and in 1959 Ruth Handler suggested the idea for Barbie, named after her daughter Barbara. Nowadays, Barbie is synonymous with toys for girls, and Mattel reached to unprecedented levels of success. 1968 saw the addition of Hot Wheels to Mattel’s line, the definitive brand of die-cast vehicles.
Elliot and Ruth Handler left the company in 1975, but to this day Mattel remains at the forefront of toy production and sales, with a wide range of brands and products that stock store shelves all around the country and the world. Mattel’s origins can be traced to not just one, but two garages – the Handler’s half of their first garage saw the beginnings of Elliot and Ruth’s design-and-sales partnership, but it was Matt Matson’s garage that saw the company’s founding moments.
This is not an isolated story; great companies and inventions seem to naturally find their starts in garages. Next Monday, Garage Greatness will look at the origins of Lotus Cars, the British manufacturer of racing and sports cars. Lotus Cars maintained one of the most successful racing teams in the world for many years and even today, Lotus F1 is highly competitive within the Formula One racing scene. The first Lotus, however, wasn’t built in a specialty workshop or design studio. It was scrap-built by one industrious Brit, Colin Chapman, in the garage behind his girlfriend’s house. We’ll explore the founding of Lotus Cars and their rise to racing superstardom next week, on Garage Greatness, or read it now, here!
Do you own any Mattel toys, or do your children? Why have their toys maintained their popularity for so long? And had you ever heard that Mattel got their start with picture frames? Let us hear your response using any of the share links on the left side of this page!