Pass any one of the nine American Girl stores around the country, especially during the holiday season or on vacation weekends, and you will likely see block-long lines of little girls waiting to enter doll paradise.
American Girl, which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary, was one woman’s great American dream.
Pleasant Rowland, an educator and textbook writer, had an idea that girls would enjoy learning about history through fictional historical character dolls with period costumes and accessories and accompanying books.
Anna Camille Eagleton and a group of her third-grade friends from St. Aloysius School know just about everything there is to know about American Girl dolls.
The 8-year-olds have been playing with them for years. They spend hours poring over American Girl catalogs.
Anna Camille has twin dolls that look just like her. One was from her grandmother, Cam Eversberg.
American Girl dolls are popular grandmother gifts. They are beautiful, well-made and come with huge collections of clothes and accessories. They are also expensive.
The dolls run about $100 with an accompanying book. Clothes, accessories and doll furniture are all separate-ticket items.
Most of Anna Camille’s friends say their American Girl dolls were gifts from grandmothers, aunts or other family members.
“Both of mine were from Santa Claus,” Caroline Cargile said. “He laid them in bunk beds.”
The bunk beds are part of the American Girl toy furniture collection.
Anna Camille has a trundle bed for her dolls.
“I sleep in a trundle bed,” she said.
All of the girls have collections of clothes and tiny shoes.
Mary Margaret Netterville’s mother, Adele Netterville, found someone to make a copy of Mary Margaret’s first communion dress for her Kit Kittredge doll.
Kit Kittredge, one of the most popular historic dolls, is a fictional character who, during the height of the Great Depression, helps her mother run a boarding house after her father loses his job.
Mary Margaret mainly collects the historic dolls. “I like their stories,” she said.
Other friends prefer the My American Girl dolls. They often choose dolls that look like them.
As with all toys, sometimes disaster strikes, like the time Danna Thompson yanked too hard trying to get a pair of ice skates off one of her dolls. Out came a leg.
Her mother, Heidi Thompson, sent the doll to the American Girl Doll Hospital. When the doll returned two weeks later, it was dressed in a hospital gown and wearing an identification bracelet.
The cost of reattaching a head or limb is $24. That’s the same price as a “wellness visit,” which includes skin cleaned, hair brushed and a certificate of good health but “no major surgery.”
“I said they should have insurance plans,” Heidi Thompson said with a laugh.
One of the services performed at the hospital is ear piercing for $14.
Mary Margaret was trying to decide whether to get one of her doll’s ears pierced until her grandmother, Mary Nell Netterville, suggested that she wait.
“My grandmother said don’t get your American Girl’s pierced before yours,” Mary Margaret said.
American Girl also sells matching outfits for the doll owners.
“Every Christmas and birthday, I get doll clothes and matching pajamas for me,” Caroline said.
There is always great excitement when a new doll comes out.
“Pretty much everyone wants it,” Anna Camille said.
In August, American Girl unveiled two historical dolls, Cécile Rey and Marie-Grace Gardener. The new dolls — one black and one white — have their origins in New Orleans in the 1850s. They are characters in a six-book series.
American Girl is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mattel Inc. However, unlike other Mattel toys, American Girl dolls are not available in toy and department stores. They can only be purchased through the company’s catalog; on its website, http://www.americangirl.com; or at one of the American Girl retail stores.
American Girl books are available in bookstores nationwide.
Several of the St. Aloysius friends have visited American Girl stores.
Danna recalled her visit to the store in Chicago.
“They served hot chocolate, and when you get three-fourths down, they fill it to the top,” she said.
Pleasant Rowland said that the idea for American Girl “literally exploded in my brain” on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg.
In “A New Twist on Timeless Toys,” published Oct. 1, 2002, by CNNMoney, Rowland (with Julie Sloan) wrote that the idea just hit her to create a series of books about 9-year-old girls growing up in different times in history.
“In essence, I would create a miniature version of the Colonial Williamsburg experience and take it to American girls using the very playthings — books and dolls — that girls have always loved. I wouldn’t invent a new toy but rather add meaning and relevance to the most timeless ones,” she wrote.
Rowland funded the enterprise herself with $1 million she saved from royalties on textbooks she had authored.
The first dolls were made in Germany. Rowland produced the books in her office and got the accessories from vendors in China.
She decided to market the dolls by direct mail. So for Christmas of 1986, she mailed out 500,000 catalogs.
That first Christmas season the company grossed $1.7 million.
The first three dolls were Kirsten Larson, a pioneer girl from 1854; Samantha Parkington, a Victorian girl from 1904; and Molly McIntire, a World War II-era girl from 1944.
By the second year, sales had more than quadrupled.
In 1992, the company launched American Girl magazine.
Over time it expanded into dolls without historical themes.
In 1998, the company opened its first retail outlet, American Girl Place in Chicago. The store also contains a theater, museum and restaurant.
That same year, Rowland’s American dream came true. She sold her company to Mattel for $700 million.