One girl is Samantha, who befriended a servant girl and later became a champion for the poor. Another is Addy, whose family was broken up as they escaped slavery during the Civil War. Or American Revolution-era Felicity, or pioneer girl Kirsten, or New Mexican frontier girl Josefina, or the plucky World War II Molly. While the girls who bought these dolls in the 1980s and 1990s weren’t facing the exact same dilemmas, they were given a firsthand look at the major events in history. “The stories from history are about strong girls facing crises like slavery and the Depression in strong ways,” says Loyola marketing professor Mary Ann McGrath.
But things have changed for American Girl. Founded by former schoolteacher Pleasant T. Rowland in 1986, American Girl dolls were meant to market to girls who still yearned to play with dolls but were growing out of them at the same time—hence the nuanced books and complex social issues that came along with them. The company was sold to Mattel in 1998 and has expanded exponentially—but at a cost too. The dolls now are “Just Like You,” marketed toward the girls who are buying them. And the line of dolls with books live in current times and face dilemmas like making the gymnastics team. While there’s something to be said about bringing the dolls to a wider audience, the rich stories that go along with them have been fading—and then in 2008, Mattel started “archiving” or phasing out the historical dolls to make room for more of the American Girl of Today dolls. Goodbye Kirsten, the Swedish immigrant whose friend died before they reached Ellis Island, and hello Saige, a white, upper-middle-class girl who enjoys horseback riding. Felicity rode horses too, as a girl living during the American Revolution, but today’s girls will have to learn about that in school, since Felicity was “archived” in 2011.