It is no secret that around August 22 of each year, I become pensive. Pensive at the thought of Richard III, England’s greatest and least understood king, dying miserably at the hands of his traitorous, treacherous enemies.
Mrs. Borden, I am sorry to say, does not fully understand my grief. She has been known to ask, ‘Why get so wrought up about a bloke who died 500 years ago?’ To which I can only say, ‘Would you not want people to mourn your death 500 years in the future?’
Still, in the interest of marital harmony, I have tried to direct my thoughts elsewhere. And hence, I began to contemplate Mrs. Borden’s new Barbie doll.
Owing to a fortuitous coincidence of a modest bequest from a distant relation and a rise in my salary (for I am appreciated at my office if not entirely at home), Mrs. Borden recently acquired one of the first Barbies to be produced, known to collectors (so Mrs. B tells me) as the Number One Ponytail. As I gazed upon this doll, I suddenly realised the truth.
Barbie was created as an homage to the Victorian practice of photographing the dead.
It is necessary for me to explain that since thumbing through an old family album and having a photograph of Great-Aunt Sallie in her coffin fall into my lap, I have been interested in postmortem photography. As many sources on the Internet explain, the Victorians were avid practitioners of this art, even going so far as to prop up their dead with posing stands to make them look more lifelike, as can be seen here:
(Some skeptics will tell you that the subjects of these photographs were actually quite alive at the time, and that the posing stands were used only to help living people stand still. Skeptics are everywhere, like cockroaches. I choose to ignore them. The Victorians gave us the light bulb, after all. Cannot they be credited with having sense enough to figure out how to hold a dead person upright?)
So eager were the Victorians to make their dead look presentable for what was often the only photograph of them, that they would not only use posing stands, they would also repaint their eyes in an effort to make them look more lifelike.
Which brings me back to Barbie. With her coffin-shaped box, her exaggerated eye makeup, and–above all–her posing stand, what else could have inspired her creator, Ruth Handler, but Victorian postmortem photography?
Can this be proven, skeptics (those insects) ask? Perhaps not, Ruth Handler, after all, had every reason to keep silent. Handler was an American, selling her doll to American children, who no doubt would have been ‘grossed out’, as the Americans say, to learn of Barbie’s true origins. So Ruth Handler dressed Barbie in a swimsuit and marketed her as a teenage fashion model, and let it be assumed that Barbie was in fact inspired by a German doll, Bild Lilli. And for decades, that has been the accepted story. It may always be the accepted story. Such is the power of conventional wisdom.
But I, gazing at my (I mean, Mrs. Borden’s) Barbie, know the truth. And now, thanks to the Internet, so do you.
My family photograph album, full of dearly departed Bordens
Jeff Borden found writing this post to be very therapeutic. Mrs. Borden says that it’s all uphill from here, until August 22 rolls round again.