I remember the Christmas I got my favorite toy like it was yesterday.
My family was gathered in my grandma’s basement, and it was my turn to open a present. At age 6, I was the second youngest, so I had been sitting patiently next to the Christmas tree while I waited for my younger brother to open his gift first. It was a rule in our family to let the youngest go first — I was never a fan of this rule.
When it felt like ages had passed, it was finally my turn, and I was handed a box. I knew exactly what it was before I even opened it. The rectangular box had such a distinct shape. The wrapping paper had little snowmen dancing around, but I tore past them to be greeted by the face of an American Girl doll smiling back at me.
I decided to name her Katie.
I was lucky to get one — they are expensive toys (these days, they start at $115). But many women, both young and old, have memories of a similar experience, and the dolls became our companions, confidantes and best friends. They taught us about the value of women and how they are just as capable as men, which encouraged us to grow up to do whatever we dreamed of doing. The diffusion of this doll throughout generations is what makes it stand out. The connection of who I was as a young girl to who I am now can be attributed to the influence of my American Girl doll.
American Girl, started by Pleasant Rowland in the 1980s in the Madison suburb of Middleton, now nets more than $100 million per year for its parent company, Mattel. According to the company’s story, Rowland believes “great stories with aspirational characters could inspire girls to make their own positive mark on the world — and she was right.”
The original line of historical dolls, which were accompanied by stories about the characters’ experiences growing up in different time periods, expanded to include more modernized dolls and merchandise that reflect the varied interests of today’s girls, from hockey to cheerleading or even a veterinarian if that is what you wanted. They have accessories for jobs from a doctor to a journalist — a girl can allow their doll to be whoever they want to be.
Much like the movie “Barbie” released this year, American Girl is part of the conversation around dolls and the effect they have on girls — and who they ultimately are as women.
“Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls,” says the narrator in the introduction of the “Barbie” movie. “But the dolls were always and forever baby dolls… Barbie changed everything … All of these women are Barbie, and Barbie is all of these women.”
Just as Barbie was different when she was introduced because she wasn’t a baby doll, American Girl dolls are contemporaries and peers of the girls who play with them.
“I never really considered that with baby dolls,” says Andrea Behling, the 31-year-old editor of Madison Magazine. “You know, that being a really popular girls toy and how it actually kind of reinforces some of those gender stereotypes.”
The product is about more than just the dolls, says Julie Parks, senior director of public relations for American Girl.
“I believe American Girl’s greatest differentiator — and a main reason for the brand’s continued success — is that nearly everything we do is rooted in story,” Parks wrote in an email. “As a longtime children’s publisher, stories have always been at the heart of American Girl, and it’s what has given our products, particularly our character dolls, such deep meaning and purpose.”
Behling got one for Christmas in 2000 when she was 8 years old.
“American Girl was a fairly expensive toy,” she says. “I remember my mom saying, ‘Well, we’ll wait till Christmas, maybe Santa will bring you one.’”
Although the doll was quite pricey, fans say the quality of an American Girl doll is what made it worth the price.
“Even though American Girl was expensive, you were getting good quality,” says Patricia Shechter, member of the Madison Area Doll Club. “The furniture was all wood and metal and different pieces of glass. It was all very well made and well worth the price that people paid for it.”
Some young girls, particularly in the Midwest, had the opportunity to go to the American Girl doll store in the Water Tower Place in Chicago. My family and I went to Chicago in 2009, and I remember I packed Katie, who had hair and eyes that looked like mine, in her little pink travel bag covered in white stars. I was thrilled that she could come with us.
My mom then surprised me with an appointment at the American Girl doll salon, where Katie could get her hair done. I requested the stylist put two french braids into space buns. Then, Katie got her ears pierced with little silver stars. I was there every step of the way and was so excited for her as if she was a lifelong friend.
Behling had memories of her own with her American Girl doll and the various experiences the two of them shared. Unlike other dolls, she says that the American Girl doll was more like a miniature version of herself rather than a baby doll that she had to watch over.
“I remember my mom taking us to the American Girl Place in Chicago, which felt very cool to be there and to bring my American Girl doll,” Behling says.
The history of an American Girl doll is a characteristic that draws many people to the toy in the first place.
“It mattered in a historical context, which you don’t often hear history from a woman’s point of view. You hear it from a man’s point of view,” Behling says. “That was really revolutionary, at least from my childhood experience, to see those stories.”
The dolls have impacted generations of girls, who may have had their own American Girl friends growing up. Parks points to the connection that American Girl works to keep alive with the next group of doll owners.
“The creativity and imagination (not to forget the love of reading and history) American Girl has sparked in a generation of kids for nearly four decades is truly phenomenal and something we are enormously proud of,” Parks wrote in an email.
Shechter is originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, a town of about 33,000 near the center of the state. This made access to American Girl dolls difficult for her and her daughter. However, it made the dolls more special when they were able to get one. She felt that this toy was a point of bonding for them. Shechter’s favorite doll is Molly, one of the historical dolls in the BeForever collection.
“My daughter loved [Molly] the best,” Shechter says. “And she had round glasses. My daughter got round glasses at 9 years old, so she could look like Molly. And I think I just liked Molly.”
Getting to have a mini-me to take care of was always something I enjoyed. It truly felt like she was my friend, and I was always thrilled to bring her on all of my adventures. Being able to use my imagination by putting her into scenarios that I aspired to achieve was something that shaped me into who I am today. Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to see the world. With Katie, I could use my imagination to achieve this dream. In my mind, Katie has traveled to cities from London to Japan.
“I think there is great power in boredom,” Behling says. “It lets your mind wander and especially playing with dolls. I remember creating all of these fantastical scenarios of what my doll would do.”
Behling’s desire to become a journalist stemmed from a variety of reasons. One of these facets was being an avid reader. Many of these books included the American Girl doll books that were offered. When she reflects on hobbies that appealed to her as a child, she sees the value in creativity and the role it has played throughout her life.
“Being able to create these scenarios with dolls did help me think more creatively and gave some agency to me and how I even think about creating stories,” Behling says. “This would certainly help give me permission to take on something like writing the great American novel.”