Badger Barbies at home in NY toy museum

Barbara Millicent Roberts, a woman of many personalities, used to hang out in Sturgeon Bay with hundreds of her friends and family.

As of this month, it has been two years since she and her entourage moved east, to the Strong Museum, Rochester, N.Y., which is devoted to toys and play.

Georgia Rankin lost a real doll of a collection when this happened, but she’s proud that her girl – Barbie – has settled into such respectable accommodations. The 75-year-old woman began amassing her enormous collection after Barbie was introduced at the American International Toy Fair in 1959.

The doll remains a hot property. Mattel, which manufactures Barbie and her pals, says three are sold every second. It is a $1.9 billion dollar industry.

Georgia had about 1,500 dolls from the Barbie families, another 1,500 antique dolls, plus animated window displays (the kind you used to see in Prange’s department store windows). For many years, she operated her own museum, Collector Showcase, which also housed husband Wallace’s antique autos (a Model T, Model A, DeLorean and 1957 Chevy – among others).

The enterprise closed in 2000; Wallace and two sons still operate a salvage yard in the vicinity. “Every year, we’d close for the winter,” Georgia says, of her museum. “After a while, it would take so much time to get it all ready for reopening.”

The process became more of a hassle than a pleasure, a lot of dusting and preservation work.

So one-half of the window animations went to the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay. The rest went to the Sheboygan County Historical Museum.

The antique dolls (“I had too many to sell on eBay”) went to Theriault’s Auction House in Maryland, which conducts sales worldwide, but Georgia took the Barbies in another direction.

“She contacted us out of the blue one day,” recalls Patricia Hogan, one of four curators at the Strong Museum, which is devoted to toys/play and is one of the largest museums for children in the world.

The collection was attractive because Georgia “had done her work in a very methodical way. She had a broad range of Barbies, and the ancillary accessories,” which included – for example – nearly 50 Barbie vehicles. Plus dream houses, unusual outfits, furniture, pets, shoes, earrings.

An “extremely well organized” collector, Georgia had removed toys from packaging but kept all of it. “It would have taken us years to build a collection like this,” contends the curator, who would not divulge how much the museum paid. The doll collector described the price as “very fair.”

A 45-year range of Barbies is represented. “I kept studying and learning,” says Georgia, and she became more particular as the doll family flooded the consumer market into the 1980s. “By that time, I was only buying the expensive or unique Barbies,” she says.

It was a smart strategy, Patricia explains, and the perfect product to zero in on.

“There are not too many trends in popular culture that have NOT involved Barbie,” she says. “She has reflected consumer values in our culture, and has represented the changing role of women.”

The world has reacted to the doll’s change in waist dimensions, her break-up with boyfriend Ken, her work as a pilot as well as a stewardess.

Barbie embraced the Civil Rights Movement “before much of the rest of the nation did,” Patricia notes, and the doll has traditionally represented “our broader acceptance of people from other cultures.”

There are exceptions. The doll was banned in Saudi Arabia in 2003, described as a Jewish toy that wore shameful, revealing clothing.

Mattel says there are more than 100,000 Barbie collectors worldwide, with an average age of 40. The company this year introduced the Barbie Luxe clothing and accessory line, for adult women.

Today Georgia Rankin’s life has a different pace. There no longer are two-a-day motorcoach tours, but she says that had dwindled to one-a-week anyway. “I think people want to go to the gambling joints instead,” she surmises.

She busies herself with phone calls from doll collectors who want advice. “How much is my doll worth,” they ask, and Georgia is glad to guess.

“But there are so many people who look at their Barbies and think they’re special,” she says. “But since the 1970s, so few of them really have much value.”

Barbie was in the first group of toys inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998. Toys are added each year to this elite group, shown at Strong Museum.

So far there are 34 classics; 2005 additions were the Candy Land board game, the jack-in-the-box and the plain old cardboard box (“unpretentious and low-tech,” it “ignites the imagination like no other ‘toy’”).

The other 30 Toy Hall of Fame inductees are: alphabet blocks, the bicycle, checkers, Crayola Crayons, Duncan yo-yo, Erector Set, Etch A Sketch, Frisbee, G.I. Joe, Hula Hoop, jacks, the jigsaw puzzle, the jump rope, marbles, Monopoly, LEGO, Lincoln Logs, Mr. Potato Head, Play-Doh, Radio Flyer wagon, Raggedy Ann, the rocking horse, roller skates, Scrabble, Silly Putty, Slinky, the teddy bear, Tinkertoys, Tonka trucks and View-Master.

To nominate a toy for this honor, go to www.strongmuseum.org and select “collection.” The nod each November will go to the nominees that are icons and innovative, more than a fad and popular for more than one generation.

The Strong Museum is in the process of doubling in size, which will make it the nation’s second biggest children’s museum (behind the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s biggest). The expansion is a $33 million project, to be completed next summer.

It will include a bigger than life bookcase that visitors can step through, to get engulfed in five kinds of children’s literature: mysteries, fantasies, adventures, fairy tales and nonsense. Another new museum element will be an interactive study of the impact of play on development and learning.

This is on top of permanent exhibits, like the supermarket that kids operate, a time travel machine for exploring pop culture trends, interactive radio and television studios.