As Mahoney and Horrocks tell it, American Girl’s runaway success was grounded not only in its innovative combination of dolls and tie-in educational products, but also in its commitment to take young girls seriously. Inspired by a childhood visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Rowland recognized the appeal and power of placing girls in an imagined version of the past. She and her team of designers created nine-year-old characters at once relatable and aspirational, beginning with Kirsten (a hard-working 19th-century Swedish immigrant adjusting to her new home in Minnesota), Samantha (a bookish Victorian orphan with a gift for public speaking), and Molly (a World War II–era Scottish American who tries constantly to reinvent herself). These initial dolls and their successors represent an ideal sort of girlhood, facing hardships large and small with just the right amount of loyalty and courage.
As American Girl’s revenues increased, so did its output. By the ’90s, it had become a “full-blown lifestyle brand.” Pleasant Company released cookbooks, craft books, and other supplements to its historical character lines, plus contemporary growing-up guides like the much-beloved The Care and Keeping of You, a sort of Puberty 101 for pre-adolescent girls. (It was recently revamped to be more inclusive.) American Girl magazine launched in 1992, a “space [for girls] to talk about the anxieties and triumphs of growing up in their own words … without making them the subject of a joke or shaming them.” In 1995, the company introduced a doll line called “Girl of Today,” allowing girls to select a doll that looked like them (or, in many cases, a friend or sister they longed to have). “She’s just like you, you’re a part of history, too!” declared one catalogue snippet.
For women of a certain age, the print catalogue has become the stuff of legend. “The only thing better than owning something from American Girl was dreaming about buying something from the American Girl catalogue,” write Mahoney and Horrocks. Doll owners and their hopeful counterparts drooled over the catalogue’s expensive offerings and tantalizing descriptions, some even pushing their parents to read from it “as if it were a Dickens novel.”