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The Enduring Nostalgia of American Girl Dolls

The beloved line of fictional characters taught children about American history and encouraged them to realize their potential.

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.

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.”