Kathryn MacGovern, like so many millennials these days, was recently tasked with an intergenerational rite of passage: helping her parents downsize for retirement. This entailed traveling from her adopted New York City home to her childhood one, with the express purpose of pilfering through the material contents of her youth, and eventually, saying goodbye to most of it. There was just one memento, though, with which she couldn’t part.
“Both my brother and I were allowed to keep one toy, and he chose to keep his Thomas the Tank Engine set that we would set up around the Christmas tree,” she says. “And I chose to keep my American Girl doll set.”
But for the executive assistant, who works for a leading designer womenswear brand, her treasured Samantha Parkington figurine was not a toy. Samantha Parkington was not even a doll, really, despite of her definitely-doll-sized hair ribbons and Chantilly collars. Samantha Parkington was a doorway, through which MacGovern, like so many millennials, walked on the way to becoming herself.
Samantha, an Edwardian orphan, entered the toy aisles in 1986, alongside pioneering immigrant Kirsten Larson and World War II-era Molly McIntire. Together, Samantha, Kirsten and Molly comprised the trio of American Girl’s original Historical Characters line, each of whom came complete with rich, weighty worlds you could read about or, for a pretty penny, shop.
“I had Barbies and other dolls growing up, but American Girl was the first toy I was given and taught, ‘You treat this well — this is a very important toy,'” MacGovern remembers. “I certainly don’t discount my privileged upbringing in order to have even afforded one of these dolls.”
Soon, Samantha, Kirsten and Molly were joined by the likes of Felicity Merriman, Addy Walker and Josefina Montoya, whose stories spanned from Southwest America just a few years after Mexican independence to the horrors of slavery and the onset of Reconstruction. As the Historical Characters multiplied, so, too, did the meticulous clothing and accessories that outfitted them. For women of a certain generation, Samantha’s violet Holiday Coat was just as precious — and formative — as is the doll herself.
When Pleasant Rowland created the American Girl brand 34 years ago, she didn’t do so with a 40,000-square-foot Rockefeller Plaza flagship in mind. Rowland, a former schoolteacher and news reporter, instead saw a vast educational opportunity: to teach history to tween girls from a more relatable perspective, using characters around their own age.
Bootstrapping the venture with royalties she earned as a textbook author, Rowland’s Pleasant Company, which owned and operated American Girl, launched with an ace of a business plan: By marketing books, clothing and other accessories separately for each doll, the company — and its young fanbase — was able to scale exponentially. By 1998, Rowland had sold the Pleasant Company to Mattel for $700 million.
Addy wears an “authentic 1864 outfit,” complete with a faux cowrie shell necklace, which, according to her story, had belonged to her great-grandmother.
Photo: Courtesy of American Girl®
American Girl has long been headquartered in Middleton, Wis., a suburb of the state capital of Madison, where Rowland and her husband still live. Best friends Mary Mahoney and Allison Horrocks grew up hundreds of miles away from there, on the East Coast, meeting each other as adults while pursuing their respective doctorates in history at the University of Connecticut. They clicked instantly: “We both identified as the same American Girl, which is extremely important,” Mahoney says with a laugh. “Molly, of course.”
But Mahoney and Horrocks had something else in common, and that was why they had decided to study history in the first place. “I was never so much into the dolls as I was into the books,” Mahoney says. “But because they had centered those stories of young women, it inspired me to not only be interested in history, but also to imagine what my life could be. We were both teased a bit for citing an influence like American Girl as a reason to get into history, but needless to say, it was important to us both.”
In 2019, they co-founded the cult-favorite “American Girls Podcast,” with each episode exploring a different American Girl book through their trained historical lens. Their discussion of “Meet Samantha,” one of the original American Girl stories released in 1986, dissects the text as a product of the age of Reaganomics. “This American Girl asks a lot of questions from a place of tremendous privilege,” Mahoney and Horrocks write in the episode’s show notes. “There may be a faux velvet hat on top of her head, but with a re-read of this book, we learn there’s brains, too.”
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Materialism, however, isn’t necessarily a dirty word in the American Girl universe. “American Girl Podcast” often reminds listeners that consumption is just a part of life in our capitalistic society, and that the brand did well to encourage its young fans to view consumerism through a sense of play, not obligation. That was never more apparent than in the company’s catalogs, which exhibited every last plaything available for purchase on glossy magazine stock. “It was almost biblical,” MacGovern says, who recalls leafing through it every Christmas to circle the accessories for which she planned to appeal to Santa.
“The purpose of the catalog was to get you to buy,” Horrocks says. “And yet, so many young people who knew it was outside of their family’s parameters of what was possible used the catalog itself as inspiration. People would craft with it, even if they never actually bought anything from the company.”
Horrocks speaks from personal experience: With the dolls’ beds running some of the steepest price points, she made her own versions, riffing on what was being featured in the catalog and infusing her own historical references. (“It really mattered to me that my American Girls had a place to rest,” she says.) But American Girl is like any other fashion brand, really, in that it’s always set out to cater to a wide range of entry levels, with accessories serving as the most attainable way in. So while a bedroom set may cost you north of $200, you can find doll-sized hats and sunglasses and even jewelry for a mere fraction of that.
A young girl picks her new doll at the American Girl store in McLean, Va. in June 2011.
Photo: Juana Arias for “The Washington Post”
That falls under the domain of American Girl Director of Product Design Heather Northrop, who has been with the company since 1992. In fact, she started as an intern, arriving halfway through the development of Addy, American Girl’s first Black doll whose “complicated” narrative begins with her life as an enslaved girl on a North Carolina cotton plantation, from which she escapes to freedom alongside her mother. (American Girl has since released two additional Black dolls within its Historical Characters line: Melody Ellison, who represents Civil Rights-era Detroit, and Cécile Rey, who originated from a wealthy family in 1850s New Orleans; the latter was “archived” in 2014, just three years after her release.)
Northrop is now tasked with overseeing every last detail of the doll’s ideation, from the doll herself to her clothing, accessories and even furniture. No detail, she says, is spared: “Whether she has glasses or freckles or braids, her hair color, skin color, eye color — all of that is determined by my team.” As the physical product undergoes development, Northrop helps to round out the character’s storyline, which then ladders back to the overall design. “We’re imagining what kind of life she has,” she says. “What are her interests and hobbies? What kind of school does she go to? Often, we even go to the location of where that character would’ve lived. All of that plays into the types of clothing she’ll have.”
It’s not tremendously difficult to understand why Mahoney and Horrocks developed a love for the past when the entire American Girl brand — be it the books or the color of its dolls’ hair accessories — comes steeped in concrete historical accuracy. Northrop offers the example of Samantha’s shin-high lavender boots, which the design team modeled after styles that saw rampant popularity throughout Victorian fashion. Even the color came well-researched: Such delicate shades of pinkish purples were some of the most versatile hues of the Edwardian era.
“It may not be the most stereotypical design from that time period, but it’s always accurate,” says Northrop. “We have a reference to back up everything we do. But because they’re toys, we have to make sure girls find them interesting and relevant, something they want to play with. Those are sometimes the places where we have to take a few liberties.”
Northrop’s team does so with the help of near-constant market research with both children and their parents, gauging everything from social issues they’re facing at school to hobbies in which they’re getting more and more involved. That’s American Girl’s central proposition, after all: to create well-rounded, impactful characters in whom its young customers can see themselves.
“I’m part Native Canadian, from the Cree tribe, so my mom got me Kaya,” MacGovern says. “I’m sure American Girl isn’t perfectly pristine with all of its historical references, but to learn my family’s background through these dolls certainly connected with my fashion because today, whenever I travel, I love to understand new cultures through clothing and the arts. American Girl really helped me understand that as a child, and that’s why I think the doll transcends toys, in a way.”
Kaya, short for the Nimíipuu — or Nez Perce — name Kaya’aton’my, has rightly been marketed as the “First American Girl” since her debut in 2002. Her stories, like “Kaya and Lone Dog” and “Kaya Shows the Way,” are set in the mid-18th century, prior to the permanent colonization of the Pacific Northwest by white European-Americans.
Long-time fans of the brand may recognize that Kaya’s facial mold is unlike that of her fellow Historical Characters. That’s because, following careful research, the company chose to give her a closed mouth due to a Nimíipuu cultural taboo of baring teeth. “We try to carve out a unique world for each character,” Northrop says. “We define their world to be different from the last character, as much as we can, so that they have a reason for being.”
Kaya, the “First American Girl,” pictured here with her mare, Steps High.
Photo: Courtesy of American Girl®
In September, American Girl released the newest addition to its Historical Characters line: Courtney, a preteen growing up in a blended family in California’s San Fernando Valley in 1986. Courtney loves video games, mixtapes and Lip Smackers. Courtney wears acid-wash denim, neon bangle bracelets and a pair of slouchy white riding boots. And on the left sleeve of her turquoise crop-top, Courtney sports her mother’s mayoral campaign pin, which is a storyline Northrop says was developed to help girls metabolize the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.
But for some millennials who lived out Courtney’s era themselves in real time, this recent definition of history may play a little too close to home. “I feel pretty sad that the only place you can buy a Molly doll right now is as an accessory for Courtney,” Mahoney says.
Indeed, Courtney comes flush with all sorts of en vogue appendages: a functional PAC-MAN arcade game, a Caboodles beauty case, a hot-pink bolero jacket — and, yes, a mini Molly doll. But American Girl archived Molly and her entire collection in 2013. Today, only a handful of the Historical Characters with whom millennial-aged women grew up remain available for purchase; Kirsten’s run ended in 2010, and so did Felicity’s, a year later.
Dani, a cybersecurity and data-privacy lawyer in New York City who asked that only her first name be used, grew up as an only child. “I asked for Addy for Christmas when I was nine or 10, and I was so excited,” she says. “I brought her to school with me. I brought her pretty much everywhere I went. She and Josefina were my companions.” She remembers Addy’s lace-up booties, and she remembers searching for her own pair well into her preteen years. And while she didn’t have the now-archived Molly or Kirsten or Felicity, they were part of her bigger American Girl world, one that came alive in the ripples of her play.
“When I heard they were being discontinued, my heart broke a little for the future girls that won’t get to experience the American Girl franchise as we did,” Dani says. “I was never a huge history buff, and I’m still not as a grown person. But reading the American Girl books provided a more digestible context that made learning about history less, for lack of a better word, boring.”
American Girl is open-minded about the future: “There’s always a chance that our dolls who were in the archive will come back,” Director of Public Relations Julie Parks adds. “We’ve never said they’re gone forever.”
Samantha came back, after all, following a five-year hiatus that saw her rerelease in 2014. So too did her burgundy chain purse, designed to hold the coins she may need for an impromptu visit to Mr. Carruthers’ Candy Shop, where she’ll swing by after standing up to her neighborhood bully.
“These girls were so independent and strong and fearless and adventurous,” Dani says, “and I think they instilled those qualities in me, too.”
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