Growing up, Sydney Rose Paulsen often viewed the world through a specific lens: namely, American Girl dolls and books. “I read [the stories] dozens of times,” the 23-year-old recalls. “They were my context for how people who didn’t have my background or grew up in my time lived. … They were so much my point of reference for everything.”
Now a doll photographer with an Instagram following of almost 60,000, Paulsen has fond memories of a childhood spent immersed in the world created by the American Girl company. Since 1986, the Middleton, Wisconsin–based enterprise has been producing dolls for young girls that are about as far from Barbies and Bratz as one can get. Each of American Girl’s 8- to 11-year-old characters represents a different historical period; brought to life through richly researched novels and accessories, the dolls become cherished parts of their young owners’ lives. One other aspect that set the American Girls dolls apart: their price. In the early ’90s, a collection of a doll, her books and accessories could run in the hundreds of dollars, making the American Girl experience financially inaccessible to many.
As a girl homeschooled by her mother, Paulsen learned about the United States’ past through American Girl’s diverse slate of fictional figures, from pioneer girl Kirsten Larson to Virginia colonist Felicity Merriman to Addy Walker, who escapes enslavement at the height of the Civil War. “I slowly started to become very interested in historical fashion because I wanted to dress like my dolls so badly,” says Paulsen. Researching the time periods in which the dolls’ stories were set, she soon gained a new appreciation of the interconnected nature of American history: Kit Kittredge, an aspiring reporter living through the Great Depression, wore simpler dresses because her family couldn’t afford new clothes, while polio survivor Maryellen Larkin, who came of age in the decade after World War II, had enough money to splurge on poodle skirts and other ’50s fashions.
Paulsen explains, “I began to have this cause and effect [thought process] in my brain where moments in history were no longer isolated, and I realized I lived in a world that is the way it is because of the Revolutionary War’s outcome or because we went through the Great Depression.”
If the overwhelming response to the company’s recent revival of its six original historical characters—several of which had previously been “archived,” or discontinued—is any indication, Paulsen certainly isn’t alone in her enduring love for the dolls. When American Girl announced the news on May 4, nostalgic social media users reacted with glee, sharing anecdotes about their favorite characters and making plans to purchase replacements for well-worn childhood dolls.
“We’ve honestly been blown away,” says Julie Parks, American Girl’s director of public relations. “… We’re really humbled by this opportunity to not only [see] how we’ve impacted the lives of so many girls in a positive way but [also] to inspire a new generation.”
Sold for anywhere between $65 and $110, each doll boasted an extensive collection of historically appropriate clothing, furniture and accessories. A six-book series following a specific sequence, from meeting the character to seeing them at school to witnessing a significant change in their life, accompanied these offerings. For years, the dolls and accessories were available only through the mail-order catalog. That changed with the opening of the first specialized American Girl retail store in Chicago in 1998. Stores in New York and Los Angeles soon followed. The books, meanwhile, enjoyed broader distribution through local bookstores and libraries.
Though inherently a capitalist endeavor, the brand’s broader goal of inspiring and educating young girls differentiated it from competitors. Unusually for the toy industry, the dolls and their related items adhered strictly to the time periods represented, with American Girl hiring historians and researchers to ensure products’ accuracy.
Public historian Dominique Jean-Louis points out that the brand’s debut coincided with a pivotal point in American culture. “It was really a moment in the ’90s, with that early sense of girls can do history, too, or girls can be part of history, too,” she says. “[American Girl] really instilled in you a sense that girlhood is universal.”
Alexandra Piper, a program manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), adds, “People come into history with assumptions that it’s going to be boring, or it’s going to be dates, or the traditional history that they learned in school.” By placing the focus on individuals, says Piper, American Girl made its characters relatable, opening an “entry point” for children to immerse themselves in the nation’s history.
Founded by educator and entrepreneur Pleasant Rowland, American Girl—then known as Pleasant Company—won legions of fans in the ’90s and 2000s with its deeply researched cast of characters, who were advertised in glossy catalogs alongside such historically accurate accessories as a 1940s radio, an 1820s adobe oven and a 1930s typewriter (all of which were also for sale). The brand has courted controversy over the years, with critics calling attention to the predominantly white historical line and the growing emphasis placed on modern dolls (a separate line known as “Truly Me”), but it continues to occupy a singular place in American culture. As Valerie Tripp, author of more than 50 American Girl books, says, “The reason [the company has] lasted as long as it has is that it recognizes the complexity, the beauty, the challenges, the growing pains of being a child. And it celebrates those.”
Rowland, who sold American Girl to toy giant Mattel in 1998, credits her creation of a line of historical dolls to two separate experiences: visiting Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum, and shopping for dolls for her 8- and 10-year-old nieces. Dissatisfied with the Cabbage Patch Kids and Barbies on offer (she referred to the former as “scrunchy vegetable dolls” and disdained the latter as too sexual for young girls), she envisioned a new doll that blended “education and entertainment,” according to Parks. Asking Tripp, a former co-worker and friend, to help bring this idea to life, she launched American Girl’s first three dolls—Kirsten, World War II–era Molly McIntire and Edwardian-era Samantha Parkington—via catalog in fall 1986. By the end of the year, the company had recorded sales of more than $1 million.
Tripp, who wrote the Felicity, Molly, Kit and Maryellen series, among others, notes that her research into characters’ eras provided her with ideas for their personalities. Felicity grows up around the time when the American colonies were seeking independence from Great Britain. Similarly, Felicity is “an impulsive child who wants more independence than a girl of her station would have been allowed,” says Tripp. “Her personal journey mirrors, or is a metaphor for, what was going on in history at that time.” Kit, meanwhile, “has to be extremely hopeful and determined” because she’s living through the Great Depression.
All of American Girl’s characters respond to challenges associated with the real-life events of their time, including wars, political movements and systemic injustice. Molly, a middle-class girl from the suburbs of 1940s Illinois, misses her father, who is stationed in England as a doctor, and befriends Emily Bennett, a British girl sent to America to escape the ravages of World War II. Samantha, a well-to-do orphan, speaks out against child labor laws after her friend Nellie O’Malley is forced to take a brutal factory job. Julie Albright, who comes of age in 1970s California, advocates for environmentalism and women’s rights, drawing on Title IX to fight for her right to play on the boys’ basketball team.
American Girl pairs accounts of oppressive conditions and exploitation—like Addy’s life in slavery and issues of settler colonialism raised by Kirsten’s books—“with stories of kindness and community and survival,” says Emilie Zaslow, author of Playing With America’s Doll: A Cultural Analysis of the American Girl Collection. “There’s a real focus on social change, and that’s inspiring to girls.”
Tripp adds, “[These characters] go from being very focused on themselves and their own family to a great consciousness of the world and what’s going on in the world around them and how they can have an influence on it, too.”
In addition to the books and core doll collections, American Girl has continuously sought new ways to introduce its young audience to history. Christopher Wilson, director of experience design at NMAH, first collaborated with the company in 1998, when he was working at the Henry Ford museum complex. Wilson helped create an interactive experience that transported visitors to Samantha’s 1904 world. Staged at Greenfield Village in Michigan, the program featured a rally for women’s suffrage and a ride in an early automobile. Later, in 2010, Wilson helped develop a self-guided tour of the American History Museum that featured artifacts connected to Addy’s experiences (or rather, those of actual girls like her). Other examples of American Girl’s history-centric initiatives include free lesson plans for parents and teachers, theatrical productions and films, and living history exhibitions.
“Whether it’s the feeling of riding in a historic automobile or horse-drawn carriage, or the feeling of training for a sit-in to protest desegregation in 1960 in a theater program, [interactive] experiences provide something one can’t get from a textbook or other type of history lesson,” says Wilson. “There is no better example of this than the strong emotional bond that girls have with their beloved American Girl dolls. This personal relationship with the character leads to a personal relationship with history and the journey of imagination girls embark upon can be spectacularly educational and moving.”
Between 1991 and 1997, American Girl added three new dolls to its line-up: Felicity, Addy and 19th-century New Mexico resident Josefina Montoya. To create Addy, its first character of color, the company recruited an advisory board consisting of leading Black scholars, including Lonnie Bunch, now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Spencer Crew, former interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The board offered input on when Addy’s story should be set, how best to convey a sense of the lived experience of slavery, what texture to make the doll’s hair and other details used to maintain historical accuracy. In total, the process took around three years.
Upon Addy’s release—and in the decades since—the character sparked controversy, with some observers objecting to the doll’s status as an enslaved individual. “It’s a stereotype to continually go back to that period. It’s our Holocaust,” children’s book author Eloise Greenfield told the Washington Post in 1993. “… How can you compare the horror of slavery with Kirsten’s mother having a baby?”
As Polly Athan, who served as Pleasant Company’s in-house research coordinator during Addy’s creation, told Slate in 2016, the advisory board actually suggested setting the character’s childhood during the Civil War. “They wanted [her] story to show the struggle and survival of African Americans as a major human accomplishment,” Athan explained.
At the beginning of the book series, penned by author Connie Porter, Addy is enslaved on a plantation alongside her family. After her older brother and father are sold, Addy and her mother run away. The pair make it to Philadelphia, where they are eventually reunited with the rest of their family.
Over the course of the series, Addy endures traumatic experiences like seeing her brother whipped, being forcibly separated from her loved ones and nearly losing her mother as they cross a roaring river during their escape. In the first book, Meet Addy, the plantation’s overseer notices the young girl is distracted while checking for worms on tobacco plants. Rather than whipping her, he “forced open her mouth and stuffed the still-twisting and wiggling worms inside. … Addy gagged as the worms’ juicy bodies burst in her mouth.”
Jean-Louis says that “everyone who’s read [the] Addy books remembers that anecdote of her picking the worms off the leaves and being forced to eat one.” The books’ vivid approach to history, she adds, helped American Girl make “such big macro concepts into really personal and immediate stories.”
Far from avoiding difficult subjects in American history, the brand seeks to address shameful chapters in the nation’s past through the eyes of its pre-adolescent characters. “[This] doesn’t diminish events, but instead just [offers a] point of view on them that children can understand,” says Piper. “… American Girl doesn’t condescend to children, but treats them as their own historical agents.”
Adding to this sense of intimacy and relatability is the level of care afforded to the dolls’ furniture and accessories. According to Zaslow, Addy’s collection originally contained objects that bore much personal significance to the character: a sweet potato pudding kit whose bitter taste reminded her of absent family members, school supplies that referenced her freedom to learn upon escaping enslavement, and a bird cage evocative of Maya Angelou’s famed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
All of these items have since been retired, with only the Addy doll, her basic accessories and her books now available for purchase. Josefina, Kit and Samantha—all released in or prior to 2000—have had their collections similarly shrunk; newer dolls, such as 1970s-era Julie Albright, World War II Hawaii resident Nanea Mitchell and second-generation Jewish immigrant Rebecca Rubin, still boast an array of accessories, but as Zaslow points out in Playing With America’s Doll, these Mattel-era offerings tend to highlight more traditionally feminine spheres, “such as beauty culture, food culture and bedroom culture.”
Since Addy’s release in 1993, American Girl has introduced two other Black characters to its historical line: Melody Ellison, a Motown singer who becomes involved in the civil rights movement, and Cécile Rey, a free Black girl living in New Orleans during the 1850s. Cécile and her best friend, Marie-Grace Gardner, were retired in 2014, just three years after their release—a move that left Addy and Melody the only Black historical dolls available.
“Addy and Melody are both stories of racial struggle, bookended by slavery on the one side and the civil rights movement on the other,” says Zaslow. “There’s been a call for the story of an African American girlhood that’s not filled with struggle, like a Harlem Renaissance story that’s focused on joy, art and music. … [Currently, American Girl doesn’t] have a story that focuses on the African American experience as something just to be celebrated and not something to be thought of as pain and strife.”
As a child, Jean-Louis loved Addy’s books but didn’t connect as much with the doll itself. The characters were marketed as friends who looked “just like you, [so] you can have your twin,” she says, but young Black girls like her, who had lighter skin tones, had no options at the time beyond the darker-skinned Addy. Then, in 1997, American Girl introduced its second doll of color, a young Mexican American girl living in New Mexico prior to its admission to the Union. “Having a more medium skin tone, dark hair [and] brown eyes, I saw Josefina and was like, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s finally one that looks like me,” Jean-Louis says. Though her family was unable to afford a Josefina doll, she borrowed all of the books from her local library and spent countless hours poring over American Girl catalogs. (Some libraries now allow patrons to borrow the dolls, too.)
Today, Jean-Louis lives in New York City and works at the New-York Historical Society. She often passes young girls carrying the brand’s signature berry-red shopping bags after a day spent at its Rockefeller Plaza store. “I’m not blind to the fact that there’s still a fee for entry [into the American Girl experience],” she says. “Yes, you might be able to walk into the store. But for a girl like me today who couldn’t afford to buy anything in the store, there’s still a sense [of] like, is this for me? Or is this for the other girls? And that can be painful.”
The eighth doll to join American Girl’s historical line was arguably its most ambitious character to date. (Kit, the plucky reporter who chronicles life during the Great Depression, was the seventh, debuting in 2000.) A member of the Nez Perce Tribe, Kaya’aton’my, or Kaya, arrived on shelves in 2002 after some five years in development. According to Parks, the company’s first step was approaching the Nez Perce and asking permission to write Kaya’s story. Gaining the Native American community’s trust took time, as American Girl had to show that “we wanted to do this right, that we wanted to do it authentically,” says Parks.
After receiving the Nez Perce’s permission, the brand recruited an advisory board that guided every step of the character’s creation. “They looked at prototypes of the Kaya doll to decide what her features, her skin tone, her hair would [look] like,” engaging in meticulous research and conversations, notes Parks. American Girl even created a new face mold for Kaya, depicting the character with her mouth closed—a departure from the other dolls—in recognition of the fact that the Nez Perce consider bared teeth a sign of aggression.
Crucially, Parks explains, board members “felt strongly about making Kaya’s story one that their children ‘yet to come’ should know.” By placing her books in the 1760s, before European colonizers settled in the Pacific Northwest, the board hoped that “children who read the stories would be able to visualize the Nez Perce people at the height of their culture, a time when their own institutions … were still intact and strong.”
Choosing this relatively little-known time period, advisory board member Diane Mallickan, a former interpreter at Nez Perce National Historic Park, told the Lewiston Tribune in 2017, “was very, very important—and it’s actually part of our healing.”
In the almost two decades since Kaya’s release, American Girl has introduced nine new historical characters and five “best friend” dolls who act as companions to the main ones. Since 2014, older historical characters have either been retired or updated with new outfits; of the original eight dolls, only Kaya has a range of accessories available.
Parks points out that most of the recent historical dolls—Maryellen, Melody, Nanea and 1980s-era Courtney Moore—focus on the latter half of the 20th century. “We know these more recent time periods are really striking a chord,” she says. “They’re still historical, even though [it was] a shocker to me that the ’80s are historical. … It’s really creating a very fun and emotional bonding experience for girls and their parents,” many of whom grew up with the dolls themselves.
Outside of its flagship historical line, the company has created dozens of contemporary characters, including limited edition “Girls of the Year” and Truly Me dolls who come in a wide selection of hair colors, skin tones and facial features. Among the modern furniture and accessories available to purchase are a pretend plane, a veterinary exam table, a percussion kit, an Xbox gaming set and a yoga mat plus matching outfit. Though some now-adult fans have expressed disappointment over American Girl’s retirement of historical characters and seeming shift in focus to “indulging girls in the present,” in the words of historian Marcia Chatelain, Parks emphasizes that the brand has “stuck to our roots [and] heritage.”
She adds, “We want to create these characters that are resilient and compassionate, and help girls become kind, tolerant, good human beings.”
Adult fans’ elated reaction to American Girl’s 35th anniversary character rerelease speaks to nostalgia’s role in the brand’s continued success. Hearing the news, says doll photographer Paulsen, was “like this warm hug feeling.”
As fans await the newest American Girl doll, several are offering ideas for future characters. Jean-Louis proposes a girl living through the late 19th-century Exoduster Movement, which saw free Black Americans migrating out west in search of a better life, while Zaslow suggests a generational series following a girl, her mother and her grandmother during their respective childhoods. The Harlem Renaissance is another oft-cited idea.
Paulsen would love to see the story of a Japanese American girl incarcerated by the U.S. during World War II. Growing up, she attended the Washington State Fair every year, only learning when she was 11 or 12 that the fairgrounds had once hosted an internment camp. Currently, the historical line includes no Asian American characters. Ivy Ling, the Chinese American best friend of ’70s-era Julie, was retired in 2014.
As Jean-Louis argues, the concept of American girlhood is, in and of itself, fraught with meaning. She explains, “Both are falsehoods. America is a place that we decided to put borders around and call the nation of America. Gender is not a biological reality, but a series of behaviors and characteristics that we’ve collapsed into women and girlhood. But then you have this real [American Girl] doll, and trying to make sense of the two things is always a little bit heady.”
Zaslow, for her part, views American Girl as both “a profitable good and a tool of cultural resistance.” The company must continually balance the imperative to make money with its mission of shaping generations of girls.
Reflecting on American Girl’s enduring values, Paulsen points out that the “whole brand [is] based on the idea that girls are the same throughout history even though culture changes, even though society changes.”
She concludes, “Girls are capable of so much, and they have been forever.”
(Smithsonian magazine, June 3, 2021)