The current issue of the American Girls Collection catalogue features on the cover an angelic-looking child in an old-fashioned red dress with big sleeves and a white lace collar, seated in a wicker kitchen chair reading a book. Her doll -- a blond Scandinavian with looped-up braids tied in perky blue bows -- sits near her on a table in a matching dress, a friendly vinyl guardian.
Examine further the other objects in the picture, because nothing is insignificant. The doll's school slate lies atop the girl's spiral homework notebook and a worn textbook that says "Language for Daily Use" on the spine. There is a plate of cookies and a glass of juice, and in the misty background, a spotless kitchen, a vase of flowers and a bowl of fruit. It is all there -- the old, the new, the home, the mind. The Doll.
These are not your ordinary dolls. They come with names -- last names as well as first -- and they come with an era. They come with a set of biographical books, and a host of tiny, historically accurate accessories. Teensy Victorian paint sets and lemonade pitchers; Colonial underwear stays and embroidered samplers; pioneer wooden lunch boxes and quilts; 1940s-style camping gear and a newspaper with the banner headline "ALLIES INVADE FRANCE." They come with matching dresses for the owner, child-size high-button shoes, frilly nightgowns and caps, paper-marbling kits and play scripts. The doll is like the girl, and the girl can be like the doll.
The entire product line is aimed at 7- to 12-year-olds, the least expensive doll is a bouncing $60 baby, and they are selling like crazy.
To comprehend why a parent would spend $1,000 for Kirsten, Molly, Felicity or Samantha's complete kit, why little girls would stand in line for two hours to get a book autographed, why a series of 24 books of historical fiction has sold 11 million copies, why 11,000 girls and moms trekked from as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, to Williamsburg, Va., to pay $50 per child and $30 per parent to have tea with Felicity and learn to curtsy -- you have to see this business as not just a business, but a point of view.
In the past few weeks, the 1 millionth American Girl left the pristine Pleasant Co. factory in Middleton, Wis. It couldn't have happened without the WASP aesthetic that has always defined Good Taste and Success: the flowered fabric hegemony of Laura Ashley; the make-it-from-scratch dogma of Martha Stewart; the ruling sartorial ethos of yacht club blazers and deck shoes. The world was ready for a line of upwardly mobile dolls.
You also have to consider the foaming undercurrent of Barbie backlash. The Barbie population has hit 1 billion, and her empire is not threatened by the likes of Samantha. But more and more parents are looking at Barbie and seeing their little girls becoming Barbie, a cheap tart in neon spandex pants and high heels, driving around in a pink Corvette for the rest of her life with her dyed hair floating in the breeze, the neutered Ken at her side. They see girls on television looking and acting like prepubescent bimbos, and they read all the statistics about sexual activity, substance abuse and rebellion starting earlier and earlier.
The American Girls dolls, on the other hand, appeal to daughters and parents who don't want to be pushed prematurely into adolescence -- according to what they say. For them, the dolls and their trappings represent a celebration of girlhood, 1990s-style -- the girl who prizes her Mary Janes as much as her cleats. Girls should be free not to play with dolls, but they should also feel no inhibition if they do. Pleasant Co. President Pleasant T. Rowland calls it "celebrating girlhood."
"I am scared about girls growing up too fast," she said. "I am scared about their childhoods being condensed to a matter of months instead of a long, spacious time to mature and understand themselves. ... They turn on the television set and the world comes down on them hard. It's sexually explicit, it's dangerous and violent, it's an angry, complaining, discouraging, ugly world that is there. And we're asking children to somehow process this in a way that they do not have the tools for."
Four of the kind of girl Rowland is talking about sat on an antique sofa in Old Town Alexandria not too long ago, a picture of lace, ribbons, curls, party shoes, flowers, white collars, lockets and earrings. On the table were fine-china tea cups and Pepperidge Farm cookies; on their laps were their American Girls dolls. Two of the girls, Sanna Adams and Christina Luckett, wore dresses that matched those worn by their dolls, mirroring the miniature puffed sleeves and sashes, rose taffeta and dark green velvet.
Erin Hoopes received Molly -- the "lively, lovable schemer and dreamer" of the 1940s era -- for her birthday, but she was wishing she'd gotten Samantha, the "bright Victorian beauty" who's an orphan adopted by her grandmother. Samantha is the most popular doll, probably because girls love to fantasize about being orphans adopted by wealthy people. Christina and Sanna have Samantha, and Cailin Delaney got Molly because she wears glasses like the doll.
If all these names make your head spin, try adding the dolls' surnames. Kirsten Larson, Samantha Parkington. Felicity Merriman. Molly McIntire.
These girls seem typical of middle-class 10- and 11-year-old girls. They are all best friends, go to a parochial school in Alexandria and have slumber parties where they stay up until 4 a.m. telling their deepest secrets and gabbing about the girls who aren't there. They took gymnastics and ballet and horseback riding, play basketball and softball, and next year they will go to Cotillion -- unless a certain boy who is a real geek is going, in which case maybe not. They all say reading is their favorite subject, except for Cailin, who likes math because English makes her wrist hurt. They collect trolls and make bracelets out of colored string, and when one of them got kissed on the hand by a boy during Spin the Bottle at a party, she scrubbed her hand with peroxide, like, forever. They say "like" a lot.
Samantha, Kirsten, Molly and Felicity were conceived when Pleasant Rowland went shopping for presents for her two nieces in the early 1980s and couldn't find anything she liked. She thought Barbie was tacky, the Cabbage Patch Kids were ugly, and the Madame Alexanders were for sitting on a shelf. "There was nothing that really spoke to a little girl's soul, that nourished her self-esteem, her sense of quality. There wasn't something to treasure intellectually or physically," she said.
At the time, Rowland had logged careers in teaching, television anchoring and textbook publishing. A fiftyish, plumpish Midwesterner, she is clearly a person of steely determination -- not only did she manage to save $1 million from her previous jobs for seed money to start her doll business, but she started it knowing nothing about mail order, manufacturing or marketing.
The company -- and she points out firmly that it is called Pleasant Co., not the Pleasant Co. -- is housed in a factory that is the antithesis of the WASP aesthetic. Posted on the wall of the lobby is a quote in three-dimensional letters: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." Rowland's extensive collection of contemporary art hangs throughout the complex, including vast metal mobiles in the stairwells. The desk workers -- executives, mail order takers, book editors and so forth -- work in modular pods. The liveliest place is the product development workshop, where three designers work amid bolts of fabric and tiny things. The dolls are actually made at the Gotz Pupenfabrik in Germany, in a little border town called Roedental in what was formerly the West. Once they get to Wisconsin, the dolls are turned into American Girls by the workers at Pleasant Co.
On the ground floor are huge storage racks of the dolls and their accouterments, and lines of women at conveyor belts bagging dresses, checking the blink of doll eyes or boxing baby dolls. In a far corner is the Doll Hospital, where a team of "doctors" performs miraculous head and limb transplants (for a fee of $20 to $35) and sends the dolls back to their anxious owners in hospital gowns with identification bracelets and a miniature bunch of balloons.
The dolls' "mothers" often send handwritten letters -- which are among the more than 7,000 a year that are received and answered -- along with their broken babies: "Dear Pleasant Company, Kirsten's arm fell off and she is in great pain. Her other arm is going to fall off to. Her hair is dry and unusual. ..." Another girl sent instructions for her Molly's care while hospitalized: "Molly goes to bed at 8:00 on school nights and 8:30 to 9:00 on Fri. and Sat. For breakfast she likes Golden Grams. For lunch she likes peanut butter and jelly. For snack she likes oreo's and celery and carrots. ... If she misses me just tell her that she's a big girl and that her friend Kirsten O'Gara is in the same building as her."
And then there are the truly unusual letters:
"I thought I should let you know that not all of your fans are children. I am forty-four years old and I love my Molly as much as any girl could. I had no quality playthings as a child and decided to treat myself to one beautiful doll now. I bought Molly three years ago and she has been my friend and surrogate-self as I worked through (with the help of a therapist) some of the ways in which I was neglected and abused." In a postscript the writer noted that she would be receiving a master's in philosophy this June.
The work force at Pleasant Co. numbers 280 except during the Christmas season, when it triples. Last year more than 17,000 phone calls came in the Monday after Thanksgiving; even the executives were pressed into answering phones. Eighty percent of the employees are women.
Rowland started working on the books in 1984 with Valerie Tripp, a former colleague from Addison-Wesley publishing. Tripp, a 1973 Yale philosophy graduate with a master's degree in reading education from Harvard, lives in Silver Spring and has such a popular following that she gets 25 to 30 letters a week and enough speaking requests to fill her days -- if she didn't limit herself to two a month. She has written 15 of the books -- most of Molly, Samantha and Felicity. (Janet Shaw, who splits her time between North Carolina and Wisconsin, writes Kirsten.)
"The product line works at about four levels," said Rowland, who mails 19 million catalogues a year. "Yes, it is about dolls and pretty things for girls. Yes, it examines material culture. Yes, it examines history. Yes, it talks about morals and character building ... most of all about values -- about the importance of making choices, of self-control, of being a true friend, of honesty, of standing up for what you believe, of learning how to affirm your point of view without being obnoxious, about learning to cooperate, about finding your role in the family, about allowing differences -- all of that's what we talk about in the books."
The books (which sell for $12.95 in hardback and $5.95 in paperback) follow a calculated "trajectory," said Rowland, starting with an introduction to the character's family and historical period and moving on to a special holiday, summer adventures, education, a conflict and a summing up.
More significantly, the books supply an educational overlay that appeals to parents. They are also the most controversial of Rowland's products, partly because of the content and partly because each book also contains a tear-out, postage-free postcard to send away for the catalogue.
Because the books are sold in schools through the Scholastic book club and are popular in libraries as well as bookstores, Rowland has been criticized for sneaking in commercialism under the guise of educational virtue. "The kids love them, but I've had parents complain about the commercial connection," said April Hoffman, who runs a public school library in Madison that Pleasant Co. has used to get feedback. "It's a kind of snob thing. In our school population, we have kids who have the dolls and we have kids who can't afford them."
Author Tripp counters that librarians who are worried about the commercial tie-in can tear the cards out, and Rowland argues that the cost of one of her dolls -- $82 if you get the paperback edition of the books -- is about the same as a Nintendo Game Boy, with about equal potential for additional expenditures, play-life and communal use. Her customers, she said, are far more economically diverse than people assume them to be. "This is a doll many kids wait a year for," she said.
The books themselves seem harmless at worst, and at best a clever and appealing mix of historical fact and wholesome, pro-girl values. "Any book that kids are reading we applaud," said Diana Huss Green, editor of Parents Choice, a nonprofit consumer magazine about toys. "They're not the finest literature, but they're nice."
Green said the dolls and their gear are indeed expensive, but of high quality. But she also has a more basic criticism, shared by many others: "One would want to see them more multicultural."
Which brings us to the subject of Addy.
Here Comes Addy
Although Rowland says she wanted a "multiethnic representation in the product line" from the very beginning, so far it is more mono- than multicultural. There are black and Asian baby dolls, but the stars of the American Girls show are not Catholic or Jewish or Polish or Spanish or, indeed, anything but white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But that will soon change.
Next fall Addy Walker, an African American doll three years in the making, will debut. There will be some kind of event, like the teas at Williamsburg for Felicity (where, judging by Pleasant Co.'s $22 video of the event, the only people of color among the 11,000 were serving tea).
"There were some real challenges in presenting a brand-new product into a market we did not know, and I felt that the company initially needed to get established financially, before we could take the risk that may be inherent in presenting a doll via direct mail into the African American market," said Rowland. "Because typically, middle-class black consumers do not purchase much from direct-mail catalogues." (Demographics experts are split over whether this is true.)
In addition to the business considerations, the doll's design was a major minefield. What historical era should she represent? Would the company use the same head as that of the other four dolls and just "dip" her? Or would she have Negroid features and coarser hair? If so, how Negroid and how coarse? Rowland assembled a board of African American academics and experts, and after a long period of gestation, Addy was born, a child of 1864.
That choice does not sit well with a number of people in the children's literature field.
"They asked me for advice, and I said that kind of story did not fit in with the other dolls," said prize-winning children's book author Eloise Greenfield, who lives in Washington. "It's a stereotype to continually go back to that period. It's our Holocaust. ... How can you compare the horror of slavery with Kirsten's mother having a baby?" Greenfield said a Pleasant Co. editor told her the choice was dictated partly by the need for a period "with attractive clothes."
Indeed, the story of Addy may be too heavy for the frail shoulders of a doll, and it clearly represents a dramatic shift in the tone of these children's books. While the other dolls face such traumas as wild bears, sailing during a storm or even choosing between loyalty to the crown of England or the patriots of the new Colonies, none can really compare with watching your brother being whipped by a cruel overseer because he "done run off." In "Meet Addy," the first of her series, she escapes from slavery with her mother, after they are forcibly separated from the rest of the family.
Pittsburgh novelist Connie Porter, who was hired to write the Addy books, is aware of the criticism. "Some people don't want to see a character in slavery -- that's ridiculous," she said. "You can run the risk of being so politically correct that you can lose whole periods of history. Children are more ready to talk about these things than some adults are."
Porter, who met twice with the advisory board to discuss story content and the use of dialect, said that she has not trivialized slavery in any way. If anything, she has made it more real to a modern child than it might have been before, she said. "I tried to show how a black child would be treated during the day at the age of 9," she said. "That she had a job like a grown person. Addy works all day worming tobacco plants. She also serves occasionally for the master, who treats her with indifference. At one point they treat her badly. She's a piece of property."
Porter acknowledges that "it's a broad audience, but black girls can't be left out of that picture. This is their great-grandmother." There was a lot of agonizing over whether to use dialect -- as in sentences like: "We safe now. We going to Philadelphia." But Porter said the notion of sanitizing the speech irritates her. "When you have a group that has been marginalized, you marginalize them even more by thinking they have to talk in a certain way."
Furthermore, she says, "it's a cute doll. ... They did well at not making just a copy of the white doll. It is taking a risk. Very few doll companies market a black doll for a mass audience. I give them credit."
And no, Addy's historically correct accessories do not include leg irons.
Any little girl will tell you the great advantage of Barbie is that you can do anything to her, cut her hair or chop her head off, paint her blue, hang her from the ceiling -- and your parents will not get mad because she only cost $10. And Rowland is not really trying to compete with Barbie's pink plastic worldview.
You don't get an American Girls doll until you are old enough to take care of something special and expensive, and have gotten beyond gold spangles as an ideal of good taste. You get her as you are entering the golden years of girlhood, the years before -- the studies say -- your self-esteem plummets and you start thinking you can't do math.
Back on the antique sofa, the four Alexandria girls are asked the following question: "What would Barbie's job be if she was a real person?"
They answer in a chorus. "A waitress." "Working at McDonald's or something."
And what about Samantha, Kirsten, Molly and Felicity?
"That wouldn't happen," said Christina Luckett. "They will never grow up. They'll always be kids."