In the beginning Lilli was a German cartoon character, created by Reinhard Beuthien for the tabloid Bild-Zeitung in Hamburg, Germany. In 1953 the Bild-Zeitung decided to market a Lilli doll and contacted Max Weissbrodt from the toy company Hausser in Neustadt/Coburg, Germany. Following Beuthien's drawings Weissbrodt designed the prototype of the doll which was on sale from 1955 to 1964 when Mattel acquired the rights of the doll so the German production had to stop. Until then production numbers reached 130,000. Today Lilli is a collector's piece as well as Barbie and commands prices of several thousand dollars (or Euros).
Lilli was available in the sizes 30 cm (12 inches) and 19 cm (7 and a half inches). She held three patents absolutely new in doll-making: The head wasn't connected to the neck but ended at the chin; the hair wasn't rooted but a cut-out scalp that was attached by a hidden metal screw; the legs didn't sprawl open when she was sitting. The doll was made of plastic and had molded eyelashes, pale skin and a painted face with side glancing eyes, high narrow eyebrows and red lips. Her fingernails were painted red, too. She wore her hair in a ponytail with one curl kissing the forehead. Her shoes and earrings were molded on. Her limbs were attached inside by coated rubber bands. The cartoon Lilli was blonde but a few of the dolls have other hair colors. Each Lilli doll carried a miniature Bild-Zeitung and was sold in a clear plastic tube.
In 1955 the tall dolls cost 12 marks, the small 7.50 marks. German office workers then had a monthly salary of approximately 200 to 300 marks, so the doll was by no means a cheap toy. She was originally marketed to adults in bars and tobacco shops as a joke or gag gift. Many parents considered her not appropriate for children. Ariel Levy refers to her as a "sex doll" in Female Chauvinist Pigs. A German brochure from the 1950's states that Lilli was "always discreet," and that her wardrobe made her "the star of every bar." Although the doll was originally not designed as a children's toy she eventually became popular with children. Doll houses, room settings, furniture, and other toy accessories to scale with the small Lilli were produced by German toy factories to cash in with her popularity among children and parents. Lilli and her fashions were sold in a number of European countries as children's toys including Italy and in Scandinavia. Lilli was as high profiled and successful as a toy as much as an adult novelty, although outside of Germany she is mostly remembered in the latter guise.
Lilli came as a dressed doll, with additional fashions sold separately. Her fashions mirror the lifestyle of the Fifties: she had outfits for parties, the beach and tennis as well as cotton dresses, pajamas, and poplin suits. In the last years her wardrobe consisted mainly of those Bavarian dresses called "Dirndl". Lilli´s dresses always have patent fasteners marked "PRYM".
The doll became so popular that she was exported to other countries, including the United States, where she was just called "Lilli". Some Lillis have been seen in original packaging dating from the 1950s for an English-speaking market labeled as "Lilli Marlene", after the famous song. Several toy companies (mainly in Hong Kong) started producing fashion dolls looking very similar to Lilli. These dolls are easy to distinguish because of their poor quality.
But Lilli also inspired the production of another fashion doll of high quality who would soon outshine her: Barbie, produced by Mattel. Ruth Handler, one of the company's founders, bought some of the Lilli dolls when she was on a trip to Europe. Back home she reworked the design of the doll and re-named her Barbie, who debuted at the New York toy fair on March 9, 1959. Barbie had rooted hair and her shoes and earrings were not molded - apart from that she was a lookalike of Lilli.