American Girl Dolls have been a huge part of U.S. culture since the mid-1980s. If you live in America and grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, chances are you or your sibling had one of these dolls. Or perhaps you bought one for your own child? The founder of the brand, Pleasant Rowland, managed to turn her idea for dolls that teach kids about history into a multi-facited empire. But there are a lot of things about this iconic toy franchise that you likely don’t know. Here are 30 fascinating facts about American Girl Dolls that will make you never look at them the same again.
1. The lightbulb moment
The lightbulb moment for Pleasant Rowland to create American Girl dolls came in the mid-1980s when she was out Christmas shopping with her nieces. Rowland was not impressed with the dolls on offer on that shopping trip, and told CNN in 2012, “Here I was, in a generation of women at the forefront of redefining women’s roles, and yet our daughters were playing with dolls that celebrated being a teen queen or a mommy.”
The budding business tycoon decided to do something about it, tying her concept of historical dolls with books to form American Girl.
2. The first three
When American Girl started out back in 1986 there were just three dolls that excitable young girls could get their hands on. The terrific trio were Kirsten Larson, a mid-19th-century child, Samantha Parkington, an orphaned kid born after the start of the 20th century, and Molly McIntire, who grew up during the horrors of World War II.
Rowland and her pal Valerie Tripp researched and came up with the backstory for the pioneering dolls, which were retired in 2010, 2014, and 2008, respectively.
3. Silencing the skeptics
Rowland told the audience at American Girl’s 25th Anniversary Tribute that a lot of people had questioned her vision. The creator said she had been “met with disbelief,” with doubters quoted as saying ‘Are you kidding?
Historical dolls in the day and age of Barbie?’ Rowland continued, “They thought it was the worst idea they’d ever heard.” I was devastated — and terrified. It had never really entered my head that this idea could fail!” But it soon became apparent many loved it; it crystallized a very important lesson for Rowland that success isn’t in the concept but the execution.
4. Marketing genius
Rowland realized early that American Girl was different: it needed a different sales strategy. She told CNN, “It was clear to me that American Girl was a thinking girl’s product line, one that would not sell at Toys ‘R’ Us.
It wasn’t meant to blare from the shelves on its packaging or visual appeal alone. It had a more important message — one that had to be delivered in a softer voice.” So, many years before Amazon, she decided that direct mail was the way to go; she also shunned expensive commercials.
5. Familiar faces
If you’ve ever studied the faces of American Girl dolls you have surely noticed that they, for the most part at least, have the same face. Yes, although there are eight molds of the spun-cast vinyl for the doll faces in use, most of the dolls have an identical one.
The most prevalent is the “Classic Mold.” It was the face of the original three dolls and has been used on the majority of follow-ups since. Rarer molds have been sported by the likes of Nanea, Marie-Grace, and Kaya.
6. Representative dolls
There has been some talk that the American Doll you choose is linked to your personality, hobbies, and future. Magazine The New Yorker once theorized about what owning each doll meant.
It wrote, “Felicity’s were the horse girls. Kirsten’s had arts-and-crafty streaks. Addy’s were bossy and always decided which game we would play next. Molly’s were cool nerds before that was a thing. Samantha’s — well, Samantha’s were bookish but outdoorsy, smart but not show-off-y, and loyal friends.”
7. Painstaking creation
You might think making a doll is a straightforward process. In the case of American Doll you couldn’t be more wrong.
Indeed, a huge amount of research is put in by historians, educators, linguists and the like to make sure the dolls are historically on-point. We’re talking about everything, including their names, clothing, hairstyles, and backstory. This work is done in the American Girl HQ with its extensive library; it is often three to five years before a new doll is ready to hit the marketplace.
8. Watch out for water
One thing American Girl doll-owners really need to watch for and avoid is water. Yes, one of the best ways to destroy your expensive toy is to get it wet.
Soaking a Samantha in H2O could lead to her cotton-filled body becoming moldy, and turning her eyes to rust. It won’t do much good for the luscious locks either.
9. Extensive archive
American Girl doll characters come and go, with many of the 17 historical dolls now discontinued. Veterans like 1986’s Kirsten and Molly were withdrawn in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
Samantha was archived in 2009 but was re-released as part of the BeForever line in 2014. Why are they dropped, then? Well, the American Girl website states it’s an inventory assessment. It says, “Each historical character brings the past to life with lessons of love, friendship, and courage. To make it possible for girls to meet new characters and learn about additional periods in history, American Girl archives select characters.”
10. Millions of books
Rowland gave the American Girl books as much importance as the dolls themselves from the start. She told newspaper the Chicago Tribune, “Books are the heart of the collection, but the dolls are the way the stories are visualized and experienced as little girls act out the stories using the dolls.
They came together. I never conceived of one without the other.” Interestingly, her pal Valerie Tripp has written most of them. Over 157 million of them have since been purchased by consumers.
11. Forgotten accessories
American Girl dolls often come with a bunch of accessories, some of which you might not recall. Yes, beside the clothes and items tied in with each character’s tome, there were sometimes some optional items that could be purchased for extra green.
One such example was the night-time set, in which you could add a bed and a cabinet/wardrobe to your playing experience. You could also create a birthday party with Samantha’s collection, which included everything from a teddy bear and table and chairs to party treats and a crown!
12. Big-screen dolls
American Girl has expanded its reach from dolls and books to movies and much more besides. The movie franchise has utilized the talents of several big-name actors, including Shailene Woodley and Abigail Breslin.
Woodley starred as the popular doll Felicity Merriman in the 2005 TV movie Felicity: An American Girl Adventure, in which she sought to save a horse from a cruel owner in pre-revolution America. And Hollywood superstar Julia Roberts has lent her producing talents to several films!
13. Cancer scare
Just as American Girl dolls were taking off and the Pleasant Company had moved into a swanky new office, founder Rowland was floored by a breast-cancer diagnosis. She recalled, “I cut the ribbon on the new warehouse in the morning and went into the hospital that afternoon to have surgery.”
Thankfully, despite a bad prognosis, she beat the disease, helped by her dedication to the business, which she credited — along with doctors presumably — with saving her life.
14. Pioneering café
In 1998 Pleasant Company opened American Girl Place in the Windy City. As well as providing a place to buy the dolls in person, the Chicago venue included a pioneering dining spot inside the building.
Perhaps the first experiential café in America, kids and parents alike loved it straight away. It even offered seating for the dolls and a hair salon for them!
15. Bitty Babies
The demographic targeted by the first dolls made by American Girl was nine-year-old girls, who Rowland thought had been largely ignored previously. But Rowland wanted to target even younger children, from 18 months upwards, so she devised a new line.
The businesswoman told CNN, “To expand the brand, we created Bitty Baby dolls and books for younger girls, and for older girls we created modern girl dolls, American Girl magazine, and a line of advice books about friendships and social interactions.” These new toys emerged in 1995.
16. Inclusivity important
American Girl has always been big on historical accuracy, but in recent years the brand has also made a significant effort to be more inclusive. Rowland wants kids of all different backgrounds to find a doll for themselves.
As such, a bald doll has been created to mimic the effects of alopecia or cancer, and there are accessories such as diabetes kits, hearing aids, and wheelchairs to make people with such illnesses or disabilities feel included.
17. Doll hospital
One of the coolest things about American Girl is the famous “hospital” where you send off your sick or injured dolls to get mended. Yes, mail or bring in your damaged doll and it’ll be fixed up as good as new, after a short stay in the infirmary.
Best of all though is that the fixed doll is sent back to its owner with a “good health” certificate and sporting a hospital gown. Awesome!
18. Addy Walker inspiration
The American Girl doll Addy Walker is a popular one for many young females. But did you know its story was based on a real person?
Yes, Addy’s story is similar to that of Mary Walker, an adult servant who broke free from a huge North Carolina plantation named Stagville in 1848 and made it to Philadelphia. Mirroring Addy’s experience, Mary had to abandon her family, but reunited with some relatives after the Civil War.
19. Mattel sale
Rowland’s Pleasant Company controversially sold American Girl to Mattel in 1998 for an eye-watering $700 million. Why was it controversial?
Well, Mattel is the manufacturer of American Girl’s biggest rival, Barbie. Rowland told CNN, “My original business plan had been executed, and I was tired. I felt a genuine connection to [then-CEO] Jill Barad, the woman who built Barbie. The ironies did not escape me, and many were critical of my decision, but I saw in Jill a blend of passion, perfectionism, and perseverance with real business savvy.”
20. Corporation’s charity causes
Rowland and Mattel aren’t content to just count the remarkable fortune that they have accumulated via American Girl. No, the company has a number of charities and worthy causes into which it plows money.
These include the Children’s Hospital Association and K.I.D.S. Over $125 million has been donated to good causes by the company to date.
21. Changing dolls
After Mattel acquired American Girl in 1998 it not surprisingly began to make some changes. And these alterations even went as far as the dolls themselves.
Indeed, before Mattel took over, American Girl doll’s faces were chubbier, their cheeks and lips did not have as much color, and they had a larger body and feet. Put a new one next to a pre-1998 one and you’ll be able to see the difference!
22. Author’s experiences
Those little books that you get with an American Doll purchase are sometimes shaped by the author’s experiences. Given that the majority are written by Tripp, that largely means they are based on her life and childhood.
Two such examples are Josefina and Molly. Tripp revealed on the American Girl website, “Like Josefina, I have three sisters. In winter there was sledding, ice-skating, or making snow angels, as Molly does in Molly’s Surprise.”
23. American Girl accolades
Given its phenomenal success, it probably won’t surprise you that American Girl has won a host of awards in its field. Yes, the delightful dolls and their accompanying historical books and accessories have garnered accolades ranging from the 2017 National Parenting Product Award — for the Gabriela McBride Doll — and the Creative Child Magazine’s Toy of the Year.
In fact, the firm has been awarded more than 450 gongs since 1986!
24. Copious controversies
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its longevity and cultural prominence, American Girl has had some controversies surrounding it. One such furor arose when new parent company Mattel started ditching historical favorites in favor of more modern characters.
Critics like Amy Schiller of The Atlantic argued that it had lost its essence , writing, “The original dolls confronted some of the most heated issues of their respective times… With a greater focus on appearance, increasingly mild character development, and innocuous political topics, a former character-building toy has become more like a stylish accessory.”
25. Stop-motion silliness
A recent craze for American Girl superfans is stop-motion videos. Yes, fans on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok have begun making their own films starring the dolls they own!
Some of them are really impressive, like the ones done by YouTuber mixiepixie7. Be sure to go online and check them out!
26. Girl of the Year
You may or may not know that American Girl has a Girl of the Year that is distributed annually. This initiative began back in 2001 a few years after Mattel had bought the company and begun producing more modern-day dolls.
The GOTY dolls are usually put on sale for 365 days before being put in the archive for eternity. The marketing tactic ensures a stampede to get the doll before it is gone forever!
27. Swanky Swarovski collaboration
Wondering what the most expensive American Girl doll money can buy is? Well, if it’s new and not a rare collectible that you are after, then it is almost certainly a Swarovski partnership doll.
Yes, American Girl has collaborated several times with the luxury jewelry brand, creating dolls that are adorned with Swarovski crystals. The 2019 edition had 5,000 of them, and was on the market for a cool $5,000 bucks. Best get saving, then!
28. Homeless doll debate
An American Girl doll that ignited a lot of debate was Gwen Thompson. That’s because Gwen was depicted as being homeless and living in a car.
The 2009 doll attracted both praise and derision, with some lauding the company for shining a light on the issue of homelessness, whilst others like Tanya Tull of Beyond Shelter suggesting it effectively normalized destitution. American Girl also courted controversy by failing to donate any proceeds from sales to homeless charities, which the brand said it later rectified with a $500,000 donation.
29. Vault opening
American Girl’s 35th anniversary in 2021 brought a whole host of celebrations. To mark it, the brand went back to its roots, and began releasing the classic original dolls from the mid-1980s, but only for a limited period.
Of course, many women who had grown up in the ’80s were desperate to get hold of one or more of their dolls for themselves, or their kids. Let’s face it, probably more for themselves: what a nostalgia overload!
30. Kaya’s crazy-long development
If you wondered which American Girl doll took the most effort to create, then it’s probably Kaya. Yes, the Native American favorite reportedly took five years of intense research and design to get on the market.
That’s because the brand took the time to consult the Nez Percé tribe and ensure that the story author Janet Shaw was penning was both sensitive and accurate enough to represent the specific population she came from. Interestingly, Kaya’s teeth are not visible like on other dolls, as this is deemed an aggressive expression by the Nez Percé.