Why Haven't They Made This?

Why Haven't They Made This?
Pigtails, Pioneers, and Polygons

Kris Naudus | 4 Oct 2005 08:02
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A little brunette girl walks down the street, clutching a blonde-haired doll with a toothy grin. The doll is a foot-and-a-half tall, and wears a pioneer dress reminiscent of Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie. The little girl and her parents turn a corner, and now you see another girl, this time red-haired, holding a doll with a similar expression, except that this doll has a darker complexion, and wears the buckskin clothing of the Nez Perce tribe. Further down the street are two sisters, one eight and the other looking about six. Each carries a doll - the elder holding a brunette dressed in Victorian garb, the younger child has a redhead in Colonial wear.

It may seem weird to be out in the world and see little girls all carrying essentially the same doll - but in outfits that were trendy long before you were born. Yet this scene is becoming more and more common among the playgrounds, birthday parties and family outings of America. These are American Girl dolls, and more than 11 million have been sold since the company starting selling them in 1986.

American Girl was founded in 1985, when Pleasant T. Rowland saw a gap in the market, a lack of dolls that were neither the buxom adult beauties of Barbie nor the round dumpling baby dolls that have been a mainstay of girls' playtime for centuries. Three characters were created, little girls from varying points in America's history (the series eventually expanded to eight main characters from different eras). Each girl was introduced and fleshed out in a series of books, each book telling a particularly themed story - a school story, a birthday tale, a holiday story.

They were meant to be educational, with unique stories little girls could explore through play. But what made this interactivity possible, what made the experience really different, were the dolls. Each girl was made into a doll (purchased separately or bundled with the introductory book), and every subsequent book was accompanied by the release of a collection of outfits and accessories straight from its pages. The accessories were more than just fashion accoutrements - they included vintage-style lunch boxes, pets, furniture, even miniature dolls for the dolls. Each set was meant to make history interactive.

In 1998, American Girl was purchased by Mattel, the company who so famously brought us the Barbie doll back in 1959. In a time when Barbie sales have taken a hit from the multi-ethnic, urban-themed Bratz line, the American Girl series has proven to be a consistent best-seller. The American Girl "experience" has expanded to include not just the dolls and books, but also a magazine, a stage show, two high-class retail outlets in Chicago and New York, and a movie on the WB (with another to follow this November). Despite all these attempts to make American Girl even more interactive, not much has been done to take the franchise into the electronic arena.

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