American Girl

Feature

Friday, April 11, 2008

The American Girl empire of dolls, books, and accessories bases its products on plucky fictional girls from historical periods like the Civil War and the Depression. Megan McDonald told Kurt that when she wrote the series for the newest American Girl, Julie, she had to delve into an era she’d lived through firsthand: the mid 1970s.

    Music Playlist
  • Daddy's Little Girl
    Artist: Al Martino
    Album: Capitol Collector's Series: Al Martino
    Label: Capitol
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Guests:

Megan McDonald

Comments [16]

vince from Kingsport, Tn.

I have came across a few porclen dolls one is an angel with wings and a jewels, the other actually has numbers: Josephina collection #80066. I was wondering what they are worth?

Feb. 12 2009 05:56 PM
Melissa from Dallas, Texas

I don't have kids yet, but I love my Samantha doll. I'm 26 and still love to change her outfits and brush her hair. I think thr price tag makes it so that the young girl will see this is more than a toy, its an investment, a collector's item. I do think with the priceing the way it is, that girls should be alittle older before they get one than if it were a normal doll brought from any big toy retailer. But if the girl knows how special the doll is and knows how to tkae care of it, they will last a life time and beyond. I'm forward to one day being about to give my doll to my daughter or granddaughter and hope she enjoys her as much as I have.

Jul. 18 2008 04:53 PM
Elizabeth from Dallas

I loved this podcast particularly because I am the proud owner of six of the dolls. While I am just about to turn 18, I still love to take them down sometimes and play with my cousins, now the proud owners of their own dolls. The books were the first series that I read by myself, the first chapter books that I read on my own. When the American Girl store came to Dallas I remember being ecstatic, and my friends were too.

The books, I disagree, do not confine the stories we create to the dolls. It didn't matter that each doll had their own stories. Occasionally I would use the stories as background the basis for the stories I would have them enact. If anything the dolls themselves encouraged me to be more creative.

I owe countless hours to these dolls, and a love for historical fiction. Whenever I take down one of the dolls I get to relive my childhood, something we all long to do every once and a while.

Apr. 23 2008 01:19 PM
Wells alumnae from USA

The American Girl dolls were created by a woman named Pleasant Thiele Rowland, an entrepreneur who in the 1960s attended Wells College, a women's college in rural New York State. Pleasant personally created and designed the original products and then sold the business to Matel for $700 million 12 years later.

So what did Pleasant do after selling her doll company? She effectively bought her alma mater through a series of "donations" and has personally designed and decorated most Wells campus interiors (creating life sized dollhouses that are actually quite beautiful). She didn't stop there... she set her sights on "restoring" the tiny college town of Aurora, NY, buying up local businesses and homes along Main Street to convert the structures to yuppy tourist destinations. Walking through Aurora is now like walking through a Pleasant Co. catalog - a picturesque village that could best be described as "historicalish." Rowland herself is not well liked by the women of Wells college nor by the residents of Aurora, nor by the National Trust for Historic Preservation which has brought suit against her to halt her "redevelopment."

Wells turned co-ed in 2005 amid protests and great controversy, openly abandoning its mission to educate and empower women. Many suspect that Pleasant was a financial force behind this and other aggressively divisive actions by the trustees. Seems like she's got a funny way of promoting historical appreciation or supporting girls and women.

Apr. 18 2008 12:07 PM
JoLee

I am a 28 year old who read the American Girl books as a child. I never had a doll. That isn't to say that I didn't want one, but the reason I would have liked one was because I loved the characters, and I loved what I learned about history reading their stories. I think that the books are great for girls because, as a child, it's very difficult to understand what it would be like to live in a different period of history. Let's face it, that's difficult even as an adult. Often history seems so much about facts, trends, and events and not really about the people who lived it. I don't think that the dolls (or the books) limit a girl's ability to use her imagination. Rather they expand the imagination by allowing her to imagine life in another time.

Also, I have to quibble with kella. Girls do all the activities listed above with their dolls. They create plays, build doll houses, paint pictures, design costume, etc. Dolls do not limit a girl's creativity.

Apr. 14 2008 07:29 PM
Carol Boone from Westlake, OH

I am the mother of three, now grown, interracial daughters and remember receiving an American Girl catalog in the mail back in the 1970's. All the dolls were Caucasian then, and I took the time to write to the company in protest that none of these dolls represented my American girls, and I would prefer to be removed from the mailing list. Sadly, I never received a response from the company, but perhaps planted the idea that there was a huge market out there for ethnic dolls.

Apr. 14 2008 01:52 PM
George Fillingham from Hopkinsville, KY

As a former bookstore owner when such an endeavor was still possible and reading was a genuine pastime, we sold many American Girl books and packets of supporting material. While I agree with the criticism that these materials replace genuine creative imagination, something I think is appalling in our contemporary age across the board boys and girls alike, the girls to whom I sold these dolls and books were equally enthusiastic about playing with them and collecting them and engaging with them. Perhaps those who granted them permission to buy these books and encouraged the collections thought that responsibility or perhaps status was more important to the girls in these families than imagination.

Apr. 13 2008 11:30 PM
name withheld

Kella (#8),
Thank you for adding a voice of reason.
Our immigrant mother wouldn't let us have dolls, though somehow we acquired a Barbie, maybe from a cousin. Even though as girls we were supposed to like the doll, we didn't know what to make of it, and it was abandoned somewhere.
Sans dolls, we read, somewhat obsessively, and wrote books. I remember plowing through Studs Terkel's book on the Depression and "Portnoy's Complaint" at the age of 11, and somehow surviving the latter.
I do think it would have been nice to have a doll, but the idea that you use a doll to explain history to your daughters is frankly appalling. Not to mention insulting! As Mel Brooks explained it in "Spaceballs", the "force" is really just... marketing.

Apr. 13 2008 07:46 PM
kella

As someone who never had any interest in dolls, the whole American Girl dolls concept seems to be strange reflection of more 'diversionary' things for young female shaping.

Now, I find it sad that girls continue to be 'slotted' from an early age to view holding an inanimate 'dolly' object with lots of accessories and add-ons, in a variety of versions, as a desired focus of their attentions.

I am even more amazed that parents would encourage this focus rather than encouraging activities that could expand the roles that girls can engage in as part of their development. Writing stories, building doll houses, creating plays, writing songs, painting pictures, cooking period meals, designing costumes, disassembling the dolls to create new objects, etc...all of these alternatives are rich with self-growth opportunities and support broadened vistas.

While I can understand the business success of the product, I am further amazed that parents would support 'dolls' as a way of learning about history. What ever happened to books, the library, the internet, etc as a source of information about history? Plus, discussion about the information can serve as a basis for family communication and interaction.

Please, enough of role-stereotypical products and their negative effects on individual growth and aspirations.

Apr. 13 2008 07:27 PM
Pat from Nyack, NY

As a point of fact, American Girl did have a limited edition Jewish doll, Lindsay. My daughter, now 17, was a determined collector, and we frequently speculated on which ethnicity/era would be the next doll. Once Mattel acquired the Pleasant Company, we decided the era of the blond, caucasian doll was at hand because of the marketing ramifications. Another, unintended, lesson learned along with the facts of indentured servitude, slavery, pioneering, etc.

Apr. 13 2008 06:43 PM
Jen

I live in Canada and so was not able to purchase the American Girl dolls when I was the age to want them, but I have become familar with them through their moviies. I find them both entertaining and informative. Most kids today think the of the '90's as history, so I think anything to help them see what really history is, is important. If I had kids I would absolutly buy thrm American girl dolls.

Apr. 13 2008 05:52 PM
annikee from Vermont

The phenomenon of American Girl is interesting. I agree that it makes history more accessible to little girls. That they've only produced one Jewish doll is puzzling; I'm wondering now what other kinds of characters they have omitted. Having only nephews and now one grandniece whose parents would never spend that much for a doll and its accoutrements I have little experience with these dolls. But I myself would be interested in buying a factory-worker character doll of the early 20th century. If they make one. I'll go look.

Apr. 13 2008 05:20 PM
Elizabeth from Colorado Springs, Colorado

I appreciated the segment on the American Girl phenomenon particularly because it focused on the books and the dolls' stories rather than the company’s lucrative brand.
At 28, I own one doll, Samantha, who I saved for when I was 10. The company was still new and only offered three dolls and 18 stories. I cherish that doll, her stories, her outfits and accessories. She still sits in my office today, wearing her Women's Air Force Service Pilot uniform my mother bought for her after my commission in the Air Force in 2001.
While I still receive an occasional catalogue, I've lost touch with the company, their magazine, their stores and tea parties. Due in part to my growing up, this distance may also be my nostalgia for the suspense between desire and gratification the catalogue afforded me. I would turn it's pages, tab the items I hoped to get for birthdays and holidays, and play with what I had in the meantime. My parents never dropped more than $50 on purchases.
The brand is strong, but I worry that the stores distance their customers from the dolls and their stories. Judging by the bags brimming with recent purchases, visits to the stores cost quite a bit more than my parents' gifts to me. I am happy that girls continue to read the stories of and find joy in the "historic" dolls, as well as personalizing dolls of themselves, but I hope the company maintains its original purpose apart from the profits.

Apr. 12 2008 05:59 PM
Daniel from Long Branch, New Jersey

In three weeks time I will be marrying the most wonderful woman I know, Margot (pronounced Mar-Got, NOT mar-go). Anywho, she loves American Girl dolls and I am sure that our new home will be filled with her collection of dolls. I asked her to explain to me her fascination with these dolls. Her explanation centered around the stories the characters had. In fact, these stories actually helped to stimulate her love of history. Who knew? So our lives will be balanced between her love of American Girl dolls (which no trip to NYC is complete without a stop in her favorite store) and my guitar collection. Married life will be fun.....

Apr. 12 2008 05:55 PM
Judy from A suburb of Philadelphia

I enjoyed the story, although I disagree that the idea of the dolls is that girls don't have to make anything up. The idea is to make history acessible.

I wish there had been American Girl dolls when I was a kid! I am 54, a little older than the newest "historical" doll would be now. I have three sons, now 16 to 24, who showed no interest in dolls despite my attempts to raise them in a non-stereotyped way.

About 10 years ago I finally decided to buy them for myself, and have been happily collecting ever since. The detail and quality are excellent, and the books for the historical dolls provide an entree into history on a personal and accessible level.

Yes, they are pricey, but the workmanship and historical detail make them worth the price. They certainly get more use than a $50 video game, which is played for a few weeks and then discarded.

I agree that it would be nice to see more diversity. There actually was a one-year "limited edition" doll, Lindsey, who was Jewish - albeit with green eyes and a fairly stereotyped book. Let's hope we see more of a range of ethnicities in the future.

Apr. 12 2008 04:34 PM
Andrew from Riverdale, NY

I enjoyed the conversation about American Girl, and, as both a dad of daughters and a historian, concur that, despite the commercialism, the dolls and books are a smart way to integrate history and fun with a celebration of difference.

When she was about 7, my daughter Rennie (proud owner of an Addie and Josephina doll) sent in a note to American Girl asking why there was no historical doll that is Jewish. The polite response said that there are many requests, and just because there was no such doll at the time didn't mean there would'nt be one in the future. Well, Rennie is now 15, Addie and Josephina are in the attic, but come out for visits on occasion, and, as far as I know, no Jewish doll. This is not a complaint, as much as an observation that the business of exploring (exploiting?) identity politics is a tricky business. I wonder how American Girl decides which identities makes the cut?

Apr. 12 2008 10:37 AM

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