2012: The End of the American (Girl Doll) History

words by Christina Drill
| Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

American Girl dolls

I was not girly growing up, and could probably count the total numbers of dolls I ever owned on one hand, but I have never wanted anything more for Christmas than I wanted an American Girl doll in 1997. It was an infatuation. I knew the catalog front to back: there are some spreads I can recall from memory even now, 14 years later (Molly’s school set! Kirsten’s Christmas kit!). Back then — operating as “Pleasant Company Inc.” — American Girl Inc. sold five models of these historical dolls in the late ’90s, three of which were originals that had been around since the company’s inception in 1986: Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly. Each girl possessed her own set of honorable “American” traits, and each came from an exciting, romantic period of American history.

American Girl

In 1998 the company also sold “My American Girls,” modern-day dolls that resembled you, but I didn’t know a single girl in the third grade who decided to go for a doll without a backstory.  In the ’90s there was a genre of historical fiction for kids dedicated to the pioneers who traveled West in the 1800s (true story, look it up), and I was obsessed with it. There was something epic about moving across the entire country at a glacial pace that thrilled me, I guess. Kirsten Larson, this 10-year-old girl whose Swedish family settled in Minnesota in the 1850s, the star of the Meet Kirsten books, was “my American girl” from the beginning.

I keep saying “girl” and not “doll” because these were not the kind of dolls intended to instill in girls some sort of maternal trait. Each American Girl had her own book series, with titles like Meet X, X and The Holiday She Celebrates, X Faces a Big Life Thing, etc. In order to appreciate the dolls, you needed to have read the books: the dolls are essentially statues — not just of their characters, but of the whole era their characters represent. So when Christmas ’97 came around, I had read all of Kirsten’s books and knew her whole story, and so I needed the Kirsten doll to seal the deal, to make her character (and all of the pioneers involved in the crossing) tangible and real.

American GirlSure enough, when Christmas morning came I opened a box with Kirsten (“a brave, steadfast girl of the Frontier,” according to the catalogue) inside. There she was, in the (plastic) flesh, dressed in her petticoat and her blue apron, her shiny blonde hair styled in looped-up braids. For my sister, my parents chose Felicity, whose resume listed adjectives like  “spunky,” “brave,” and “independent-minded.” Felicity represented the Revolutionary War era.

That is what these dolls did well: represented, and introduced girls to, history. My sister, who never read books, slowly developed an interest in this period of American history, brought on by a curiosity of Felicity’s life. She too wanted to be familiar with the era in which Felicity lived. To keep up with my sister I had to cultivate an interest in Colonial America as well, so that year, to quench our sudden fascination, my parents took us to Old Williamsburg for a long weekend (Minnesota was too far away, not enough of a tourist spot). Clari brought Felicity, and I brought Kirsten along for the ride. After all, it was their country’s history, too.

Today, when you go to American Girl Inc.’s website, their mission statement states that “American Girl [dolls] show girls of today that they can do great things if they believe in themselves and each other.” There is no history aspect mentioned. The company’s PR changed its tune after receiving a lot of criticism in the ’90s by feminist groups who claimed that, by selling dolls in dresses, the company was doing nothing to actually empower young females. It isn’t the same anymore, but in 1997 when I scoured their catalogues, every single doll you could order came clad in a pretty dress.

In response, the company published a line of self-help books, in which the company taught American girls about hygiene, ettiquete, and how to deal with every kind of feeling. American Girls, Inc. began to focus more on making sure their company was empowering girls socially, rather than focusing on the education through which girls could also feel empowered.

Life magazine coverThe flagship American Girl Store opened in Chicago in 1998. Before that, dolls were mailorder only. In Chicago for the first time over New Years, I went, not the least bit ironically, to check the place out. The store is awesome: huge, colorful, and way better than the Barbie house in the Toys “R” Us Union Square. But I was almost immediately bummed out when I noticed the majority of my fellow morning shoppers were young girls huddled around the “My American Girl” kiosk, where they were all browsing for dolls that resembled themselves.

“But I need a green eyed one! And it needs to have brown curly hair,” I heard a girl who looked to be about 11 explaining anxiously to her mom. “They only have green eyes and straight. And it comes with a journal, yeah?”

I must have looked totally depressed by what I was eavesdropping, because that’s about the time when the sales associate approached me.

“Are you having any trouble? You’re gonna have to wait in line to order one of these,” I was told as she motioned towards the My American Girl kiosk we stood near. “But if you want one of those historical ones over there, it isn’t much of a wait.”

“Are people just, like, not into them anymore? Like Kirsten and them?” I asked, almost wanting to cry.

The saleswoman raised an eyebrow at me. She wasn’t very sweet. “Rarely, a lot of collectors though. ‘Old’ isn’t ‘cool’ anymore. You think these girls give a crap about the old girls?”

Something came to mind to say something about history not being old, and history being more of a perpetual thing you can still learn from, and that history, like stories, cannot get old. But the sales associate totally didn’t care — she was just here to sell this shit, so I kept my mouth shut.

It’s 2012 and all those girls have YouTube accounts where they record themselves talking and I should have known. American Girl History is dead.

Christina Drill is from Fair Lawn, New Jersey and currently writes and teaches in Panama City, Panama. Follow her on Twitter! (@stidrill.)

  • http://theculturedump.blogspot.com/ Vicky

    I loved the original American Girls and also had the catalog memorized. It started with just Kirsten, Samantha and Molly. My mom(!!) got Kirsten, I got Samantha and my sister had Molly. I still have my Samantha doll! I never understood the appeal of the newer dolls. I adored the back stories and accessories that accompanied the books. I still want Samantha’s vacation set!!!

  • Katie

    I was just like you, only at a later date. I adored the history dolls, and memorized all of the catalogs too. The holiday edition was always my favorite, because it was 10 times bigger. My doll was Samantha, and when her movie came out, I was so excited! I still love history today and I think that it has to do with American Girl Dolls. It saddens me that they’re mostly focused on the look-a-like dolls. When I was a little girl, I wanted all of Samantha’s (and eventually Nellie’s- the first thing I bought with my own money) collections. In fact, I still do.

  • Rose

    My daughters and I only discovered American Girl 2 years ago (we are in Aust), but if there had been no historical dolls, we would never have looked twice! Some of the modern dolls are pleasant looking dolls, but they hold little interest compared to the rich and varied worlds of their historical counterparts.
    One of my daughters has however received a modern doll, but created a ‘Fern’ from Charlotte’s Web doll for herself!

  • Anon.

    I disagree. I run am American Girl theme book club and the girls LOVE the historicals. They always want each new doll that comes out. Kit and Molly are the most popular by far. Soem of the girls have the Girls of the Year, a couple have Look-like-me dolls, but the historicals are definitely the most common.

    • paula

      I am with you, Anon. My 11-year old daughter got her first doll, Felicity, at age 4. She has only 1 non-historical doll because it was such a disappointment to her that it didn’t come with a “cool” story (she just wanted it because it had earrings). She has never asked for a non-historic doll since then. Her friends all feel the same way. That sales clerk was a little out-of-touch with her customers.

  • India

    Aww! I still don’t have a My American Girl, even thugh I have six dolls! I have Chrissa(girl of the year 2009) Kaya(the Indian) Kit (great depression era) Elizabeth(Felicity’s friend) Rebbeca(Jewish) and Julie(70s man! Peace!) And I love all of them, even Chrissa. I can relate to her, she’s a victim of bullying. I like that they addressed that. But, alas, with every happy tale, there is sadness. I, like you, read Kirsten first. All her books, boxed set. I still have at least 3. But, I never to the doll. They retire her before I got her.:”””( I was sad. She got me started on the A.G.s! But, if anyone feels like giving a Bowen eyed brunette eleven year old Kirsten, come to me first! Yup, I’m eleven.

  • Ducktight

    I think a little history is in order here. The American Girl situation changed when the Pleasant Company was bought by Mattel. Mattel came in and took a great company and decided to turn it into a huge money maker. When you only have a line of six dolls there is a limited amount that you can sell. So they started making “limited editions” every year as well as pushing the customized dolls really hard. They also knew this would broaden the accessory market tremendously, since there is a limited amount of items that Kit, Molly, etc can own. However the sky’s the limit with the other dolls. They turned the company into a money machine and ruined it’s essence. And to add insult to injury the dolls are way lower quality with shiny plastic hair and mediocre skin texture.
    I miss the old Pleasant Company too…

    • Jill

      Actually, the American Girl of Today line (as the MyAGs were originally called) was added in 1995, a few years prior to Pleasant Company (which was an LLC, not Inc, I’m pretty sure) being sold to Mattel. And even after selling the company, Pleasant Rowland (the creator) remained on board for a few years, so the moderns and a few additional historicals were very much under her direction. The line was added by request of their girl customers, who loved the historicals but wanted moderns as well. When the line was added, the selling focused on each doll becoming a sort of time capsule. The doll was sold with a set of blank books and tips on writing stories similar to the historicals’, but focusing on the owner’s place in history instead. Over the years that has changed bit by bit. First they cut it down to only one blank book, then they only offered a book with character quizzes and some scrapbook pages. Now they don’t have anything that really encourages girls to create their own character and write their own story. The online world the dolls unlock now is fun and has some educational aspects, but it doesn’t encourage creative writing and thinking about how you are going to impact history quite like the original moderns did.

      I was introduced to Pleasant Company as a six year old in the early 90s, and have remained a major fan all these years. The history aspect was what drew me in, and it had always been enough for me until the added the moderns. Then I became fascinated by those, but not because I wanted a modern doll more than an historical. I just loved the idea of writing stories and having my own dolly representation of my work. And I thought it very inspiring to think that they were right, I *was* going to be a part of history someday and that I’d better keep a record of my life and the things going on in the world so that future generations would know what it had been like to live in my era.

      The historicals always remained in my heart and on my wishlists, and I do believe there is room in a person’s (not only girls love these dolls!) life for both types. For the past several years my focus has been on a set of moderns that I am writing stories about, but they are history loving girls and often wear “vintage” styles (outfits from the historical line, as well as ones I’ve created from my research into fashion history, which is just one of many things these dolls have inspired me to learn), and collect antiques (more items from the historical line).

      I do feel the moderns have lost their way a bit, for a while seeming more like large fashion dolls than on the educational and empowering tools they were (and can still be). But I think they are also trying to straddle two lines now, where they maybe weren’t so much before. Our culture has become even more focused on looks and clothes since even the 90s, and many little girls are feeling that pressure and developing an interest in fashion earlier and deeper than ever before. AG wants to appeal to them, as they are a large segment of the customer base. But clearly AG does still want to promote girls’ history, as evidenced by their three new historicals in two years. Unfortunately, the historicals don’t always sell as well as the moderns. I imagine it’s quite a struggle trying to appeal to the historical camp, the superficial camp and the empowering girls camp – and still keep everything balanced, new/ fresh and earning profits. I see similar changes and conflicts in other areas of girl- focused products, such as books. Nancy Drew, for example, has changed a lot in recent years in particular, as the company tries to keep her relatable and interesting to today’s girls. The Nancy I grew up with is nothing like today’s Nancy, but she also isn’t like the original Nancy, either. So these kinds of changes in products aren’t a new thing. Companies are always trying to keep up with their customer base, and the interests and tastes of all groups of people change from year to year, let alone generation to generation. This current group of AG customers might not be as fascinated by history as the previous groups, but that doesn’t mean that will be a permanent thing. In a few years historical fiction could take off again, and greater interest be given to the historicals.

  • Heather S.

    Don’t lose heart. The historical dolls are not dead. They released new historical dolls last year (or was it two years ago?) and they are releasing another historical doll this fall. My girls ages8.5 and 10 have three dolls between them – ALL historical. They LOVE the stories and the girls and the history! In fact, my oldest and her friends are beginning an American Girl book club this month. I am AMAZED how much history my girls have learned and the extended research into history this dolls have spawned. It’s still a great thing! In fact, my girls scoff at the girls who have “look-alikes” as not having *real* American Girl dolls. And like you – we took a trip last year to Cali. Visited many places along the coast, including San Fran and of course, my youngest had to bring her Julie doll so she could visit her old stomping grounds! Too cute!

  • http://www.cindybin.blogspot.com Cindy

    I can’t believe it! Here I am reading with interest, thinking this is a nice article, and then you used the sh-word at the end! That is terrible! And you are a teacher? Here I am always chastising the guys to watch their language online because “ladies are on these boards”, and so it really drives me nuts when a woman swears! We will never get the guys to understand that a gentleman shouldn’t swear in front of a lady, when LADIES swear! And what type of guy is a woman going to attract if she uses language like this? I shudder to think. Oh this just drives me nuts. I can’t even read an article about innocent DOLLS without someone swearing? And what really makes me mad is that nobody even chastises you for this!! Doesn’t this bother anybody else? I was shocked that you used this word! I thought it was bad enough that the lady in the store used the word “crap”, but then you used the sh-word like it was nothing??

    • Kelly

      Oh jeez, get over it. A woman’s purpose in life is not to attract a man, and I don’t exist simply to worry about what others people think about what I do. Your worries about “what kind of man will a lady who swears attract!” are the kinds of worries that hold women, and society, down. You are perpetuating the idea that a woman’s mind and body are up for public judgement and that nothing about us is important unless it’s validated by someone else. And besides, you’ve missed the forest for the trees. You are the worst kind of influence for a young girl or woman.

      • http://www.cindybin.blogspot.com/ Cindy Bin (Cindybin2001)

        Oh you just don’t get it! Every time I mentioned about thinking of what kind of man a woman is going to attract, somebody accuses me of thinking that a woman’s PURPOSE in life is to “attract a man.” That isn’t what I mean and you know it! But you know that many people get married, and of course a woman should want to attract a nice guy! And we will NEVER get the guys to respect women and understand that a gentleman shouldn’t swear in front of a lady, as long as LADIES swear! Nobody should swear! Can’t you see that?? Oh I just can’t believe it. YOU are setting a terrible example, not me!

        • Sammmgolds88

          What is your deal, lady? So what if she said one swear word? If a guy can’t handle that women might use expletives every once in a while, he isn’t a guy I would want to waste my time on anyways. What if the author is more worried about more important things than if/when she gets married? Fact is, for me at least, if a guy can’t handle the fact that I can swear occasionally, he isn’t the guy I’m going to marry. And I don’t give two flying…well, you know…about whether a guy swears in front of me as long he isn’t calling me or another woman a few choice words. I just imagine you flapping your hands, putting your fingers in you hears, and singing the national anthem any time someone says “damn.” We get where you’re coming from, we just don’t give a shit.

    • Lina

      MagicMaureen? Is that you?

  • Gigo

    I agree with you all the way Cindy! I was also reading and thought what a nicely written story and I was enjoying reading it, then came the Bad words. Wow! That was really unnessary to mess up a very nice story with bad words. I hate them and they make the person that uses them,seem less likely to be listened to. Why do you feel those words are important? They leave no credibility to what you are writting. Now I feel I wasted my time to read your story because all I remember now are the two bad words you used. Please rethink how you speak.

    • Lina

      No. I won’t.

  • Samantha

    They have opened a new store in Washington D.C. Brand new and HUGE two stories high at the huge and very popular mall. The store is divided as follows: first floor: My American Girl, the upstairs: Historical girls.
    There is certain comotion downstairs but so is upstairs. I would say that there is nothing wrong with a girl
    having her twin as this is somewhat trend nowdays so pretty much the reason you see some girls swarming at the window with look-alikes is because most likely at some point each girl is getting one. Now, the other dolls were enjoying huge popularity to say least. Girls were shopping for the odlls, for outfits and there was so much to choose from and I saw tons and tons of girls carrying things to the registers and in bags to their cars.

    Just as every girl collect dolls so the American Girl owners and it is very unlikely that you can imagine any girl having five look-alikes. They are done after one and then or before they go with historical girls that have charm, character and some extra stuff to go with them. The whole business is about collecting and this is where and what you collect.
    The American Girl just like me series is probably trageted towards lower class anyway not upper or middle class incomes when you can just pump your little one with goodies for no reason and no occassion…
    the buying for upper crast never ends and goes on at the historical figures.

  • Samantha

    oh.. you used the SHIT words? ha ha ha.. good for you,
    I just saw some people attacking you for that. oh my gosh.. you people get a life!
    Words are to express .. she expressed certain feelings and reality and
    the words were adequate.
    Live with it!

    Good for you, I really can’t undrestand people hanging upon words…
    get into the meaning.. do you need to translate truth into
    powdered sugarcoated words? ugh.

  • Butterfly

    i agree with you, i have a historical and a MAG who dosent look like me, Dakota(MAG) wears historical clothing and the outfit she came in (modern) i threw in my closet a put a historical outfit on her right away. because of AG im OBSESSED with american history.

  • Melly

    My 9 year old dd is very into AG. She currently has 7 dolls, 3 of which are historical. She LOVES her Addy doll and has read every one of those 6 books to many times to count. I think there is a lot of appeal for girls with the MYAG dolls but there is also appeal for the historic dolls as well. Stop being so cynical these are just dolls after all and however a girl plays with them is just fine. At least they aren’t sitting in front of a video game.

    • Jbmdolls

      Great comment, I agreed completely. I would be more concerned if there was no interest in the dolls anymore particularly with all the gaming & online activities out there. And I see nothing amiss with a little girl wanting a doll with a similar look to them. Can be empowering.

  • http://www.AmericanDolls.com Non of your bussiness

    I have an American doll I called her kaley and I LOVE Her

  • AmericanGirlStarterCollector

    I have 3 dolls. All of which are historical, Molly, Marie-Grace, and Cécile. I am getting Saige (GOTY 2013) next but(….) she still comes with two great stories! I am regretting not getting Samantha because now that i look back i REALLY would want her. I think Josefina is beautiful and she is hopefully going to be one of my next dolls. I also have 4 mini’s Samantha, josefina, Kirsten, and Molly. I do want a non-historical doll. There is a MAG i fell in love with a couple months ago and cant think about me not getting her. And you guys are giving her crap for saying SHIT!!(!!!!!!) If you dont have anything nice too say keep your mouthes CLOSED!!! Anyway i thought it was a great article! :D

  • http://www.americancustomdollhouses.com Toni Assael

    Wow! What a great article, but you did scare us with the title. Our family believes that the American Girl® historical dolls not only have great play value, but are also very inspirational. Back in 1989 our daughter, Jessica, received as a Christmas gift, Molly, one of the first American Girl® dolls. That’s when a lifelong relationship began. Molly remains a particular favorite among the 20 other historical dolls collected by Jessica over the next two decades. Like Molly, each doll has her own special story from her own special time. Jessica and we (her mom and dad) felt the only way to meet the needs of each doll was to custom design and build a home for them all by ourselves. And so we did. Because so many other people also collect the historical dolls, we ended up creating a family business, American Custom Dollhouses Company, that offers heirloom quality dollhouses for 18″ dolls. And the rest is history!

  • Jbmdolls

    I think the videos the girls make are cute. I love some appear to be enjoying their childhoods and enjoy playing with dolls. I see a lot of creativity too! If the internet was around when I was a kid, I would have had a bunch of videos with my dolls up there! LOL

  • thinkingabovemypaygrade

    My daughter enjoyed American Girl dolls during their “HistorY FIRST” period…

    My fav memory is my mom looking thru a large picture book about Molly and life during World War 2. Mom looked at the photos, the artwork and said “That’s the way it was”!

    (she and my mother in law…are Molly’s “age”–to the uninitiated, they were about 10 or so around 1944–WW2 era). A great way for my daughter to connect and understand her grandmothers’ time!!!

    FAST FORWARD
    The history girls are featured (sort of…) but now (in2013) SAIGE is the precocious fine arts painter who (in the made for TV movie) will round up friends who will throw together a professional show to raise the few thousand dollars needed for a fine arts teacher as…GASP…the Fine ARTS budget got cut. (Sounds like they read product research that saidt girls like fine arts, redhead dolls, toy “horses” to go with the doll…and put it all into a book.)

    W

  • thealefamily25

    I hate AG Dolls.

    • Thalia

      That’s rude bitch

  • Amymomof3girls

    Historical are my daughters’ favorite parts of AG. Historical are still the heart of AG.

  • Kiki

    Hey that video is by stevenwodsadancer