by Jennifer Young
Regarded as the second-most popular doll of all time after Barbie, American Girl dolls were initially only available through mail-order catalogs; today, there’s a flagship American Girl store in most major U.S. cities. The dolls reflect the identities of both historic and contemporary American characters, including Native-American, immigrants, and American colonials. Though popular across the country, the American Girl company was born in Middleton, Wisconsin, and launched by Pleasant Rowland, a Chicagoan by birth.
The daughter of a Michigan Avenue ad man, Pleasant Rowland was born in Chicago in 1941 and grew up in the northern suburbs. Although an educator, writer, and philanthropist, Rowland is best known for the American Girl brand. She launched her doll company in 1986 after visiting Colonial Williamsburg and thought girls might become more interested in American history if they had a doll ambassador as a partner-in-learning.
Each 18-inch American Girl Doll comes outfitted in the clothes associated with her specific era. She is introduced with a story and sold along with books, clothing, doll furniture, and accessories that suit her character. Like Barbie, American Girl dolls are sold separately from all their associated items. This business model has proven to be highly lucrative for the brand.
In 1998, Rowland sold her company to Mattel for $700 million. While Rowland went on to form non-profit organizations and perform philanthropic work with her husband, Mattel has continued to introduce new lines under the brand and produce books, clothing for both dolls and girls, and host special events in its flagship stores.
American Girl stores are interactive spaces. Many are designed with cafes where doll-loving girls and their families can enjoy tea, birthday parties, or other special events. The Chicago American Girl store in Water Tower Place is an American Girl’s dream. Aside from the bustling restaurant, there’s a salon where girls can bring their American Girl doll for a makeover while enjoying a new hairdo session of their own. The store will even provide care and repair of “injured” American Girl dolls.
Today, there are hundreds of American Girl Dolls, including boy dolls. Some of the most popular doll characters include Felicity Merriman, Kaya, Addy Walker, Kirsten Larson, Molly McIntyre, Samantha Parkington, Melody Ellison, Kit Kittredge, Josefina Montoya, Rebecca Rubin, and the sweet little hippie, Julie Albright. The dolls represent different times in American history, including the Revolutionary War, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1960s. Many of the early dolls are highly collectible and sell for thousands of dollars (each) on auction sites like eBay.
As of late, American Girl sales have dropped. In fact, some toy industry experts have reported that sales are actually “plummeting.” For one thing, the dolls and their accessories aren’t cheap. Traditional American Girl 18-inch dolls run about $98 each. Some lines like Bitty Baby dolls, popular with toddlers, sell for $60 each. Mattel has been trying to combat the dip in sales with innovations like custom American Girl dolls. For $98, girls can come into a flagship store and design their own doll—even one that looks just like themselves. The company also plans to reinvest in storytelling, one of the key factors in the brand’s ongoing success.