HE’S A DOLL!™ – Mattel copyrighted this line to introduce Barbie’s boyfriend Ken in March 1961, through the trade magazines Playthings and Toys & Novelties and at the American International Toy Fair in New York. The first Kens were issued with red shorts (with white stripes down the sides) and sandals, towel, wire stand and booklet. The earliest promotional images show him in black and white trunks, matching the original Barbie swimsuit. This version was not commercially produced, though all 1961 Kens came in a box which features him wearing black and white shorts on the cover. According to the April issue of Playthings, Ken was officially available (to dealers) from June 1961.
He was made in Japan and came with crew-cut flocked hair in various colours. Officially there are three versions: brunette (very dark brown to black), blonde (every kind of blonde from lemon to ash, straw and strawberry have been found) and the version known as a ‘brownette’ (mid-browns ranging from sandy to dark reddish brown). The original flocked hair Ken is arguably the most beautiful Ken ever, but sadly came with one major design-flaw: his flocking simply couldn’t withstand intensive play or washing. For this reason Mattel were eventually forced to discontinue him, and by Christmas 1963 had completely replaced him with a new-look Ken with painted hair.
For more information and many more detailed photographs see THE VINTAGE KEN® BOOK.
KEN #750 (blonde and brunette)
All flocked hair Kens were packaged with one card insert at the shins and one at the neck, and had a cellophane bag covering the head to protect the hair. This bag may look a bit spooky, but they are now highly prized by MIB (mint in box) collectors.
Some Kens have perfect matt complexions, while on others the plastic has either gone shiny all over the face, or pink and chalky around the jaw. Their hair ‘cut’ also varies between a straight hairline which goes down to the temples at right angles, or a more convex hairline curving at the temples. The eyebrows also vary greatly in shape and colour. These Kens can even differ in size and stance. In fact, I’ve studied countless flocked hair Kens, and have never seen two which looked identical.
All 1961 blonde and brunette Kens came with a yellow towel and sandals in a cellophane bag, and they wore the same wrist tag.
THE ‘BROWNETTE’ KENS
The brown-haired versions were only sold in the first year. The term ‘brownette’ is generally used to describe these Kens, but, as far as I know, is not an official Mattel trademarked name. Like the blondes, they can vary quite a lot. The order catalogues from 1961 which feature Ken, such as Montgomery Ward, Aldens and Spiegel, all only show this brown-haired version. Sears do not feature Ken in any of their catalogues from 1961, and JCPenney did not even produce mail order catalogues until they took over the General Merchandise Company in 1963. However, collectors have found ‘brownette’ Kens with price stickers on the boxes from JCPenney and many other stores all over the US, so they were obviously not sold exclusively through any one store. It can be difficult finding good versions of this Ken, not because they are particularly rare, but because they are rarely as nice-looking as the regular versions.
KEN #750 (‘brownette’)
The ‘brownette’ Kens came with their own unique wrist tag and a slight variation booklet, which can be seen with the boxed Ken below, and in detail in THE VINTAGE KEN® BOOK.
THE RED TOWEL
The ‘brownette’ Ken appears with a red towel in the 1961 Aldens and Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogues, as well as the Mostow Co. Yearly Wholesale catalogue No.149. Not all of them came with a red towel though. I know the Ken directly above came a with regular yellow towel, as I bought him from the original owner. The Spiegel catalogue even shows a pink towel like the prototype in the later Mattel catalogue. However, the written description states “Towel not incl.”, which presumably means that the pink towel was never commercially available. I have found two differently shaped red towels, both of which can be seen in THE VINTAGE KEN® BOOK.
One thing ‘brownettes’ do have in common is their style of face paint, with their pale brown eyebrows, painted eyelids with heavier ‘lashes’, and a white crescent or dash inside the pupil (unlike the regular flocked hair Kens, which have a white dot in the iris). I have also seen versions with and without a painted scalp under the flocking.
The Ken below is the only one I’ve ever found which is a kind of hybrid. He has the ‘brownette’ eyes, but his (immaculate) hair is very dark brown, and he has dark brown eyebrows (which oddly look both over-painted and original). I bought him out-of-box, so sadly don’t know which accessories or booklet he originally came with.
Some 1961 flocked hair Kens, including ‘brownettes’, have differently-shaped feet from all others, with more careful detailing to the toes. The markings also differ: JAPAN is stamped very small across the width of the sole of the right foot. All other Kens from 1961 have JAPAN stamped large along the length of the sole.
All 1961 Kens were stamped on the bottom with the Ken logo and Mattel copyright, dated 1960. (According to the website trademarkia.com, a U.S. federal trademark registration was filed for KEN by Mattel Inc., El Segundo, CA 90245- 501 on Monday October 17th 1960).
THE 1961 BOXES
The box lid front and sides remained mostly the same during 1961, but the ends came in several versions. Most boxes have identical ends, looking like the one shown below at top (1). Some of them have the addition of a stamp marked blond or brunette (2). Some are actually printed blonde hair, or have had that printing covered with a blank sticker (3). Others have the words blonde or brunette printed large (4). Some have this printed on both ends, and others have this printed only on top, or bottom (with Imported from Japan in the lower right corner), with one of two different designs on the opposite end, both of which also mention Japan (4 & 5).
The box lid ends of the ‘brownette’ Kens were either the basic version, or the version with blank stickers. Below right is one of mine, also showing the price sticker – Ben Franklin Stores – more proof that the ‘brownette’ Ken was not exclusive to any particular store.
Most Ken boxes made in Japan have a small stamp inside the box lid, with ‘K’ and a number. My own collection contains boxes stamped with numbers ranging from K1 to K284. I have no idea what these stamps refer to exactly, though would be grateful to hear from anyone who does know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE WIRE STAND
All vintage Kens came with a wire stand or “pedestal”.
BOOKLETS & CATALOGUES
The earliest pictured versions of Ken I have found are from Mattel advertising and promotional material from March 1961. He is shown wearing black and white striped trunks – which were not commercially produced. The Mattel 1961 Annual Report shows a later prototype, which also features in the Mattel Dolls 1961 catalogue. This one is certainly closer to the final Ken, but note the pink towel.
Despite his official trade launch in March, Ken was not available to dealers until June (see Playthings magazine from April 1961 below).
The Barbie & Ken booklet which came with the ‘brownette’ version is not dated on the cover, but is otherwise practically identical to the regular one, with just slight differences to the printing and colouring. Both show the same generic illustration of Ken and have no mention of hair colour. It is missing part of Ken’s description, which (as it ends half way through a sentence) is presumably a printing error. Either that, or it was because some ‘brownettes’ really didn’t come with a towel (as alluded to in the Spiegel catalogue below).
He does not appear in any 1961 store catalogues until Christmas (at least I’ve discovered none so far), and they all feature ‘brownette’ Kens only. The Spiegel catalogue shows Ken with a pink towel. However, the written description states “Towel not incl.”, which presumably means that the pink towel was never commercially available.
For the first couple of years Ken was occasionally pictured with bendy arms, an artistic licence which sadly didn’t do him any favours.
Annual catalogues, as well as Spring Summer and Fall Winter catalogues usually only show items from the previous Christmas. Hence the 1961 version of Ken with white-striped shorts and towel appears in several catalogues from 1962. Note however that they now show regular blonde and brunette Kens.
The page below from the 1962 Yearly Wholesale Catalog of The Mostow Co. and Lee-Robert Division shows Ken holding a red towel. The picture quality is so bad, that I’m not sure whether this is a light ‘brownette’, or a darkish blonde, but this Ken is obviously no prototype, so presumably really came with this rare variation towel. Other catalogues still even show prototypes.
The 1962 Fall Winter Spiegel catalogue states that Ken comes “With Swimsuit, sun glasses”. This was probably just an error, copied from the Barbie description.
Mattel were quick to acknowledge the popularity of their vintage dolls, and regularly produce reproduction gift sets for the adult collector. A reproduction of the blonde flocked hair Ken (wearing Dreamboat) was issued in 2006 as part of the Friday Night Dream Date gift set. The brunette flocked hair Ken was reproduced first in 2006 for the 45th Anniversary in a reproduction of his original box, with the 1961-style beach outfit and towel. A second brunette was issued in 2009, wearing Tuxedo, as part of the (Barbie 50th Anniversary) Wedding Day gift set. A third version, again wearing his 1961-style beach outfit, was issued in 2011 as part of the (Ken 50th Anniversary) My Favorite Ken gift set, which also included a reproduction of Victory Dance from 1964. This same brunette Ken also appeared in 2011 (inside an Iron Man style robot suit) as Chogo-Ken by Ambush, a Platinum Label collector piece, limited to 25 boxed sets. A reproduction of the ‘brownette’ Ken (brown hair but regular style face paint) wearing Touchdown was issued in 2008 as part of the Campus Spirit gift set.