If you were a young girl some time between 1986 and 1998, chances are you had one or more of the dolls pictured above. Samantha and Molly, the two furthest on the right, were by far the best presents I ever received as a kid. I treasured them then and I treasure them now, resting on a shelf in their “Meet Samantha/Meet Molly” outfits (pictured above). They have long since been retired along with my other play things, but I was so sad to learn recently that most of the original American Girl Dolls are also retired from production.
The dolls, created by The Pleasant Company in 1986, aimed to teach aspects of American history through a book series from the perspective of a preteen living in that time period. Despite the heavy topics (child labor, poverty, racism, slavery, war, etc.) the American Girl stories were appropriate for their young audience. It was much more than a doll with a good book: the American Girl Dolls literally were my childhood.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but what drew me to the American Girl dolls – when I already had dozens of Barbies and babies – was that they encouraged imagination but focused on real events. I loved reading and acting out stories – what little girl doesn’t?
The biggest positive, in my opinion, is that the girls had something special – courage, compassion, confidence — one or more qualities that were the focus of the books as they faced their adventures and their real life problems, like growing up during World War II. My life was far less exciting, so I loved acting out the history with my sister and cousins. I wasn’t all that great in history class, but I was inspired enough by Molly’s history to write a novel set during World War II. And Samantha is the reason I love the Victoria era and always wanted to live in a Victorian home. I admired her character and poise, I literally became her. Like I said, American Girl Dolls were my childhood.
I feel sorry for young girls of today who receive tablets and iPhones as gifts. Sure, American Girl Dolls were not cheap, but at least my parents could justify that they helped develop imagination, encouraged play time, and inspired an interest in historical events and overcoming real life challenges.
In 1995, The Pleasant Company introduced a line of contemporary dolls to expand the collection. When the company became a subsidiary of Mattel in 1998, it seems as if at least part of the original intention was lost altogether. In fact, most of the originals, pictured above, are retired from production. American Girl Dolls that are being sold today don’t come with a historical relevance whatsoever; they have simple lives and, if you ask me, their “struggles” are quite watered down. It’s just…another doll. One could argue the emphasis of this collection is no longer on history and education.
On the other hand, young girls today have the option to pick a “Just Like You” doll, one with a face mold/skin tone/eye color/hair color, etc. which represents her. This is a nice idea – diversity and representation is not bad! In fact, the dolls still come with stories that focus on their individualism, qualities, and special talents. The message for girls has remained a positive and healthy one. And the good news is the historical characters line that was recreated this summer and dubbed BeForever, holds onto some of the original charm and intention (and my dear Samantha, who had been retired, was re-launched at this time).
Still, in many ways young girls miss out on the experience that I was lucky to have as a young girl. Do they know what they’re missing? Probably not. They’re still receiving a lovely doll that their parents feel good getting them. But they’re getting something different. Here’s a lovely reflection from my sister (who owned Kirsten and Felicity)”…
I remember their lunch pails and lunch baskets… I remember the accessories that came with our dolls were part of the hours of endless fun. I remember the good, quality of all of their outfits. Everything from St. Lucia’s head wreath down to the laced work boots from Kirsten’s travels on the boat to America.
I remember the long white strings that hung from the back of their necks, that we tenderly tucked against their bodies when getting them dressed, and acknowledging its importance (“don’t pull it or her head will fall off”) and knew enough to leave it alone…
I remember so, so much about what we loved about them, but I think my absolute favorite memory was how it was the first time that I had found such an interest in diving into history. All of the books brought me back to a time and place where the people were the same but their lives were drastically different. The struggles they had were unlike any I have ever known. The purpose and intention behind their actions were always with the understanding that knowledge and growth and development would come from their choices.
I believe I read each book from each girl’s series at least three times and to this day can recall specific events in their lives. It was the books that got me into the dolls that I remain grateful for to this day. They weren’t just dolls, or books, or money, they were something I can only describe as The American Girl Experience. An experience I am so grateful I got to have…before it changed to what it is today.
What do you think? Do you think American Girl Dolls have changed for the worse or do you think they continue to develop appropriately and as necessary for today’s consumer?
Rotator photo credit to doodleandlucy.wordpress.com.