Tuesday, March 30, 2010

American Girl

I'm still moderately crushed that they didn't unleash the glory of the respective downtown-based American Girl Places until I was far past the acceptable American Girl consuming age. I would have been all over that. I mean, tea parties? With your doll? Is there some sort of a sign up list somewhere? Because I would like to enlist myself immediately.

Just the other day, I was at the home of a family with young girls and found each one proudly toting a bona-fide American Girl doll. The jealousy reflex in me sprang forth, strong as ever. As much as I begged, my parents would never cave and purchase me a wildly expensive Samantha doll per my requests...er, demands. My friend had one complete with it's own turn-of-the-century style miniature version of the rich person wire bed on which she slept. Granted, these young girls I encountered this week had the far inferior "Just Like Me" My Twinn-knockoff dolls complete with eerily identical features and customizations, but the jealousy reflex enacted nonetheless.

While American Girl may have started with the noblest of literacy and girl pride-minded intentions, the brand morphed into a major franchise of merchandise and self-proclaimed collectibles. I was an avid reader of the books, so imagine my delight as a child when the mailman saw fit to bring me my very own American Girl merchan dise catalog. If I had known what crack was at the time, this catalog would have become its mildly less addictive equivalent for my 10-year old self. I spent hours meticulously marking pages, indicating not only which dolls and accessories I preferred but also which me-sized American Girl-style clothing options I would hopefully someday wear with false-modest pride. Who doesn't want colonial frock or a shirt whose collar suffocates me with its early 1900s high buttonedness? These things are relatively irresistible. Well, to girls in the target 8-12 demographic, that is.

This effort-laden catalog scouring turned out to be for naught, but it did teach me a valuable lesson about coveting and consumerism. That is, that I really, really like it. Thank you, American Girl. You've served me well in my path to shopping addiction.

The spark of the American Girl concept was born in the mid-80s when creator Pleasant Rowland visited colonial Williamsburg, enjoying the impact of the fully immersive experience. Later, when shopping for gifts for her tween-aged nieces, Rowland realized that the range of dolls available to preteens was highly limited. The focus of these dolls, she observed, seemed to be on either mothering (baby dolls) or aspiring to teenagehood (Barbie-type fashion dolls). No dolls were specifically geared toward the interests of then generally underserved preteen demographic.

Initially launching the line as a mail-order enterprise, Rowland created the fledgling American Girl franchise in 1986. American Girl originally featured three historical girls: Kirsten Larson, Samantha Parkington, and Molly McIntre. Each doll came with three books about her life in her respective historical setting and optional clothing and accessories based on the character. American Girl was born.

American Girl quickly grew into a veritable operation, releasing birthday books, seasonal books, and my personal favorite in 1988: life-size matching clothing for the doll owner. The line veered into some alternate territories, but for the most part its focus was on the historically relevant doll line with its corresponding books. The original characters released in 1986 were:

Kirsten Larson (1850s)Kirsten is a Swedish American living in Minnesota in the mid 19th-century. Kirsten is a kind, sensitive girl open to new experiences in her new country. She was an avid sewer and had an adventurous spirit. Plus, she wore her hair in an awesome braid/Princess Leia Cinna-bun hybrid. I liked the idea that she was Minnesotan like me, but I could never seem to get my hair to stay in those braid loops like hers.

Samantha Parkington (1900s)

Samantha Parkington is a turn-of-the-century orphan living with her rich Grandmary. Yep, Grandymary. I guess that's Edwardian rich-speak for Grandmother. Samantha is curious and progressive, excited in new prospects and ideas. She taught me that you can be both rich and kind. Plus that it's totally awesome to have a slew of servants at your disposal. I don't think that was the point, of course, but I definitely picked up on it.

Molly McIntire (1940s)
Until the line expanded into more ethnically diverse characters, Molly is the original line's token "girl with the glasses." Molly is lively and scheming, with a father abroad fighting in World War II. She has a taste for glamour and excitement and has vivid imagination.

The line quickly expanded to include more characters based in different historical periods. In 1991:

Felicity Merriman (1770s)

It's surprising Felicity wasn't in the original release group, considering creator Pleasant Rowland's claim that a visit to colonial Williamsburg inspired the series. Felicity is coming of age during the Revolutionary War. She is highly independent and spunky and rejects many of the feminine ideals assigned to her my her time period.

In 1993:
Addy Walker (1860s)
The series' first African American character, Addy's books explore more complex societal issues, depicting her life as an escaped slave. Addy doesn't believe slavery is fair and is a proponent of racial equality, finding the North to be similarly prejudiced to the South from which she escaped.

In 1997:
Josefina Montoya (1820s)
Josefina is a girl growing up in New Mexico before the Mexican-American war, when the period was still under Mexican control. Her books integrate some Spanish terms and examine Josefina's life following the death of her mother. She is shy, thoughtful, and caring. Plus, we get to pronounce her name "HO-se-fina", which is totally awesome.

In the 2000s, the company later added post-white settlement Native American Kaya'aton'my,first-generation American Russian Jewish Rebecca Rubin, spunky tomboy Kit Kittredge, and civil-rights minded Julie Albright. The diversity of character and ethnic background grew significantly over the years since the original 1986 release, but the general guiding principles remain the same.

The books had their flaws, but they fulfilled Rowland's original vision of interesting young girls in history and lives unlike their own. Rowland introduced girls to disparate historical periods through the lens of girls who were their own age, with similar hopes and ideals. It was an innovative idea, and kids bought into it with great fervency. Bought into it so much, of course, that they begged their parents for books, dolls, magazine subscriptions, costumes, accessories, and everything else that turned this educational premise into a lucrative financial enterprise. It may have worked too well on me; I'm still putting that Samantha doll on my birthday list. It's worth a try. If you're interested in fulfilling my decades-long dream, don't forget to throw in the wire-frame bed too.


Alison said...

I never got a doll either. Despite pouring over the catalog for hours. Or being a faithful subscriber to the magazine for years.

Did you hear about the "controversy" with the Rebecca Rubin doll?


Melanie's Randomness said...

I never got a doll because it was seriously wayyyy tooo expensive. When I started working at a Toy store when i was 13 so um...1998 the clothes & the dolls were still like crack to girls. I liked them...if they are still around when I have kids one day my daughter will definitely get one!

Anonymous said...

I was a Molly girl myself, as I had brown hair, glasses and a wild imagination. After much pleading, I got her for Christmas, shortly before they started making the American Girl Dolls of today. I was bummed I couldn't customize, but I did get to buy Molly a tie-dyed roller blading outfit!

She is now tucked away in a box in the attic with slightly shorter hair, and far too much clothing.

Oh, and the American Girl place is amazing. If that had existed when I was in my phase - well, I quite possibly would have taken a second mortgage out on my parents house just to go inside.

Anonymous said...

I remember being so excited when the Addy doll was released. That was BIG news in my 99.99% caucasion elementary school. Makes total sense. :)

ali said...

I always wanted a Samantha doll. Never got one... still bitter. I did have Molly's school bag (me sized) to use in third grade which I thought that was the coolest thing ever.

I have to say, I love the diversity and the value in learning historical stuff (I was amazed it took them so long to make a Jewish doll, I thought of that in fourth grade) but the whole empire just seems a tiny bit over the top.

vanessa steck said...

I had Felicity and my sister had Addy and they were so much fun. My lord. Now I think they are absurd and overpriced and kind of weird, but I always did love Molly. I wanted her whole bed set and her camp set. I used to just stare at all the cool things that could be bought!

for the love of pictures said...

I never got a doll either. I work near the American Girl store now, and can see why. Those things are ridiculously expensive! The books were fun though. I used to read them to my little sisters and they really enjoyed them.

Btw, I am having a small giveaway on my blog if you're interested.

Have a great Tuesday!

Heather said...

This is too funny. I was babysitting the other week and the little girl had an American Girl doll. We then talked about the dolls as I was lucky enough to have Samantha when I was little. Grandma took mercy on me because 2 of my older cousins had 4 or 5 dolls.

Did you know they don't even make Samantha anymore? Well, at least she wasn't in the catalog. I have to admit I live near the Mall of America and when the American Girl stor opened I had to go check it out.

Mrs EyeCanSee said...

I will admit to being totally spoiled. I had every last little thing you could have for Kirsten...but I never played with any of it for fear of messing it up. So every season I would change her outfit and accesories and be done with it.

petitechica said...

Wow, I remember these! I - um, this is embarrassing - I was so consumer-minded I actually demanded my mother read the catalogue to me as a bedtime story. Yeah. Capitalist waiting to happen, that was me.

When I was seven, my parents came through in a big way with a Samantha doll and half a dozen outfits. I would have made them buy up the whole line - including all the me-sized clothes - if I could have.

Melissa said...

Aw I used to LOVE all things American Girl! Molly and Samantha were always my favorites. I read the books but never had a doll... they were way overpriced. I used to love looking through the catalogue though, and picking out what I WOULD buy if I could, haha!

Hope Chella said...



Cee said...

I had samantha and my sister had Molly. It was fun to collect their crap but they were kind of hard to play with.

I also loved the Magazine because it had free paper dolls in each issue!

Kristina said...

OMG! I loved american girl, I had Molly...then they had the ones you can make to look like yourself, I never got to do that...always wanted to.

Lil' Woman said...

I would stare at that magazine for hours and envision all the fun me and my Samantha and Molly doll wou;d have...I never got the doll tho, cheap ass parents..lol :)

Melissa Blake said...

LOVED the books! Molly was my girl! :)

Anonymous said...

I never got the dolls either but one of my sisters had the full paper doll pack of the original three. I always wanted to be Samantha, but they always made me be Molly because I had glasses but I came to like her anyway. I really wanted those dolls, but the closest I got was the little nutcracker doll that was supposed to be an accessory for one of the girls.

rsparks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rsparks said...

Pouring over the catalog was a big part of my childhood as well. Every time it came, my hands were red or blue from magic marker circles of what I wanted for Christmas that year. I finally got a Samantha doll who was my prized possession for many years. She's now preserved in a box at my parents' house, looking a little worse for the wear but waiting patiently for my future daughters to play with her.

My younger sister got Kirsten the same year and within months her head had fallen off. This is not to say anything about the quality of the dolls, only how much she was loved. We sent her to the AG hospital and she came back good as new with a hospital gown and a "Get Well Soon" balloon to boot.

Also, for some reason my parents thought I might want a My-Twinn doll. Not only was I too old for dolls when they got her for me, she really sketched me out. She was like an oversized voodoo doll. I ended up giving her to the little girl I nannied for 2 years to remember me by. Creepy, huh?

Sadako said...

Oh, hate me, I had Felicity AND Addy. But a friend of mine had Samantha and pretty much all her accessories for her birthday, all set up to look like the freaking catalog. And as you know, that's about eight hundred dollars worth of tiny plastic crap. I was so jealous.

Thanks for knowing that Samantha was Edwardian, NOT Victorian. And yeah, I never quite got why it was Grandmary and not just Grandmother.

Freck said...

Oh my gawd. American girl. I had a twin one and now I have no idea where it is. The store in Water Tower in Chicago is simply scary. Just...scary...

Shannon said...

Sadly, Samantha was retired at the beginning of 2009. Maybe if we start a petition we can bring her back, because I never got a Samantha doll either.

Carol {Everyday Delights} said...

Amazing post! I spent hours upon hours playing with Samantha and Felicity and I still kind of obsess over them too. The company has totally gone downhill though.

defining amy said...

oh my gosh. i was obsessed. i collected all the dolls, and now i give one doll to each niece each christmas. i have six dolls, so i figure after three year years, the fascination with their aunt's dolls will wear off, but until then, everyone involved is loving it. so funny!!

Emily Catherine said...

I LOVED American Girl as a kid. I had a Felicity, myself...

Actually, I'm an American history grad student right now and I trace my interest in history back to American Girl dolls. I wish the ones they make these days were more focused on the history stuff rather than the "My Twin" thing because... it was really influential for me, anyway!

amy said...

i am somewhat ashamed to say that i have many of these. i mean, many. my parents divorced when i was six, and i attribute my acquisition of every kind of doll imaginable to their (at least my dad's) associated guilt.

the winter i was six, i received molly. i remember having the hardest time ever deciding between her and samantha. i even enlisted the advice of my brothers and male cousins, who were of no help whatsoever. i chose molly, and never looked back. molly was my absolute bff. i took her everywhere, and looking at her now, you can tell. she is not in good shape. (although, to her credit, she once rode the pepsi ripsaw roller coaster at camp snoopy. i doubt many dolls have lived to tell that tale.)

my hard molly-or-samantha decision didn't even turn out to matter that much, because in the end, i got samantha the next year for christmas. this gift started a tradition: every christmas, i received an american girl doll as my gift. in subsequent years, i received:
molly (as mentioned)
samantha (as mentioned)
kirsten (i am a minnesotan too, so i loved her. but my best friend had her already, so i wasn't nearly as eager as i might have been to acquire her myself. that said, i still wanted her desperately.)
an american girl of today doll (what they used to call the "just like you" dolls. only at the time they did not have curly hair, and my hair is no longer blonde, so she really looks nothing like me at all.)
kit (who i received when i was technically too old to still be so in love with american girl dolls, but i have a major case of arrested development, and don't care)

in the meantime, i also purchased myself (with birthday and christmas money i saved) a bitty baby, which had no historical relevance, but was adorable nonetheless.

i can't tell you how important those dolls were to me. i loved them like they were my children. i spent hours flipping through the catalog, was a consistent subscriber to the magazine (and found many of my favorite books through their fiction excerpts), and i'll never forget dragging my dad tot he mall of america to see the american girl "exhibit", which featured all the merchandise in glass cases displayed in the rotunda. every time i got to the moa now, i still visit the american girl store and think that if my 10 year old heart was that excited to see a toy carriage behind a glass case, imagine the unadulterated joy it would feel at being able to touch said carriage in store.

and i'm only a little ashamed to say (by which i mean, not ashamed at all) that on my last visit, i bought myself a ruthie doll (kit's best friend). i couldn't help myself. despite my belief that they went too commercial when mattel appropriated pleasant company, american girl will always hold a special magic for me nothing else can touch.

and so i hate to crush your dream, but the above commenter was right: they stopped producing samantha a couple years ago. kirsten is now done as well.

sorry, everyone, for this massive comment. and for being the brat with so many dolls. if it earns me back some love, i paid for college myself. apparently dolls were worth spending money on, my education was not!

(but as my last act as an american girl brat, i'd like to point out that that was not felicity's original dress. the original looked like this.)

Meghan said...

I always loved the books and was SO jealous of my friends when they all got Samantha dolls and I didn't:( But I agree - it has turned into a MONSTER. I live by the AG store in Chicago and it's always a zoo of moms and daughters fighting over clothes, brushes, etc.

Kristen said...

I looooved these books when I was in elementary school. I was never lucky enough to get a doll though. Kirsten was the first literary character I'd ever found who had a name similar to mine, so naturally she was my favorite, although Molly and Samantha were close behind.

Meg said...

I totally had Josefina. And my sister had Felicity, so I dressed my doll in cool colonial clothes. Oh my gosh. I need to go play with toys now.

Anonymous said...

I LOVED American Girl. I had all the books, until Josephina came out, that is. I also subscribed to the magazine for many years.
I was one of those girls who had more than one, I'll admit it. My mom saw the catalog when it first came out, right before I was born, and decided to start saving to buy me one of the dolls. She saved quarters for 7 years! I always thought was pretty cool. Man, I loved those catalogs. I finally decided on Molly, who is looking a little worn now, and I also got a lot of her accessories; and a family friend bought some of the patterns that you could use to make clothes for the dolls, which was really neat.
I bought an American Girl of Today when I was 9; the first huge thing I bought with my own money. She has bangs, though, which I never had, and that always kind of bothered me, haha. Oh, and I totally had the long red nightgown for her and in my size.
For my 10th birthday I got Kirsten, but at that point I didn't really play with them as much. I've always been scared to take her braids down.
They still look great on display on my bookcase, though...waiting for whenever I have a daughter or granddaughter. :)

Jen said...

I just picked up a bunch of the Samantha and Molly books at a used bookstore for cheap.

And they were just as good as I remembered. Seriously really fun, and great illustrations.

I was obsessed with the catalog as a kid too (nice to see that I wasn't the only one), but never could afford a real doll. I coveted Samantha and all her pretty accessories. I'm still kind of bitter.

BSC AG said...

I went to a tea party with my Felicity doll! My mom sewed me a dress to match her Christmas outfit and I LOVED it. The doll is at my parents, but I have all the books.

RAY J said...

I remember getting my Samantha Doll in like 2nd grade. A few friends had Kirsten and then a few got the 'newer' Felicity. We'd bring them to school with us and I remember one year a bunch of us took our school pictures with our dolls.

I read the 3 original series plus Felicity's. I have most of Samantha's accessories and dresses by now (we've collected over the years just to have em), my mom could sew so she made a look like knock-off to Samantha's night gown for me. When I got glasses in 3rd grade we bought a pair of Molly's glasses (which you could buy separately) and my Samantha now had glasses!

I hate how they "retired" Samantha, only to introduce a doll that looks like her and is from almost the exact same period... kinda stupid if you ask me!

I was too old for the store in Chicago when it opened, but my sis had a Bitty Baby and so we'd visit when we were there. Never did the luncheon thing though - we tried once, but the wait without a reservation was ridiculous!

Anonymous said...

I finally got my Samantha doll when I was 23 and working. I went to the magical American Girl Place in NY and it was wonderful. I wish they hadn't reitred her because I still need a lot of her things. Because I am too old to play with her my mom suggested it could be my daughters one day, but i said I'd ger her her own doll...this one's mine!

Anonymous said...

I finally got my Samantha doll when I was 23 and working. I went to the magical American Girl Place in NY and it was wonderful. I wish they hadn't reitred her because I still need a lot of her things. Because I am too old to play with her my mom suggested it could be my daughters one day, but i said I'd ger her her own doll...this one's mine!

Anonymous said...

Ooh how I loved drooling over American Girl. The magazines were def an addiction. I never did get one either and looking back I can see why. Expensive!!!! Instead I(my mom) settled for the paper dolls which I plan to let my little girl play with at some point. Samantha was my favorite. And I settled for playing with the rich younger neighbors doll who of course had all the accessories. I still have some of my books too.

Molly Mouse said...

I loved AG when I was a kid. I still have my Samantha and Molly dolls somewhere. My little sister (who just turned 13) still goes to the AG store. They have awesome Tea Parties in their Cafe, just sayin'.

Heather Taylor said...

I loved American Girl and was very fortunate to have parents that got me the Samantha doll and her bedroom suite for Christmas. Once, there was an American Girl fashion show competition in my city and even though I fiercely believed I was Samantha through and through, the glasses I wore as a little girl stuck me in the Molly territory. Despite this, I still dressed as Samantha and when I was supposed to walk the room, I took off my glasses to do so. Was blind as a bat and could not see where to go. I lost that competition, but it was still a fun experience!

Shoshanah said...

I loved American Girl dolls growing up, and decided I wanted to start collecting them. Although the quality now that Mattel makes them is no where near what it used to be. I wanted to buy Felicity's guitar, except when I went to the AG place, its now a plastic guitar when it used to be wooden.

And just to let you know, they actually retired Samantha about 2 years ago. Although I'm sure you could probably find one on ebay if you looked hard enough

Tahleen said...

I had Samantha, and I actually can't remember when I got her; just that I had her and acquired many accessories and clothing through the years. I also bought a "Just Like You" doll myself--I remember calling the company and asking for one of those sticker puzzles, you would put on a new sticker puzzle piece for every increment of, like $5 or however much it was you earned. I felt so grown up!

Chris said...

Nice piece! I'm so touched with this post because my daughter cried just before Christmas. She said no one remembers to give her a doll. I tried to console her with a piece of cake and a Hello Kitty notebook. Thankfully, her Grandma gave her many gifts this New Year like 18 in doll, clothes, drawing books, 18 inch doll clothes and accessories, pens and books.

hannahsims2247 said...

I got my first ever American Girl doll when I was 6- Little Samantha. She wasn't really popular when I was 6, heck, I was pretty much the only one who was interested in them. I got a couple more, (Kit, Ruthie, Lanie, Kanani, and my new Just Like You doll). Now I have 6 American Girl dolls and I'm super proud of it.

quilts and quotes said...

Just got a Kit doll and am loving it - as the mother of boys and an art teacher - I read them the American girl craft books - it worked!
Now I make doll clothes!!!

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