Dolls via Pleasant Company Catalogue // Collage by Chloe Effron
Dolls via Pleasant Company Catalogue // Collage by Chloe Effron

25 Spirited Facts About American Girl Dolls

Dolls via Pleasant Company Catalogue // Collage by Chloe Effron
Dolls via Pleasant Company Catalogue // Collage by Chloe Effron

Whether they had Kirsten, Molly, Samantha, Felicity, Addy, or Josefina, these wildly successful, historically accurate dolls defined the childhoods of many girls in the '90s—but if their creator, Pleasant Rowland, had listened to anything but her gut, American Girls might never have existed. Here are a few things you might not have known about the dolls.


In 1984, textbook author, TV reporter, and teacher Pleasant Rowland accompanied her husband on a business trip to Williamsburg, Va. “I loved the costumes, the homes, the accessories of everyday life—all of it completely engaged me,” Rowland told CNN Money in 2002. “I remember sitting on a bench in the shade, reflecting on what a poor job schools do of teaching history, and how sad it was that more kids couldn't visit this fabulous classroom of living history. Was there some way I could bring history alive for them, the way Williamsburg had for me?”

A few months later, Rowland went Christmas shopping for her nieces, then 8 and 10. She wanted to get them each a doll—but she found that her only options were Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids. “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,” she said. “My Williamsburg experience and my Christmas shopping experience collided, and the concept literally exploded in my brain.”

She dashed off a postcard to her friend Valerie Tripp: “It said, ‘What do you think of this idea? A series of books about 9-year-old girls growing up in different times in history, with a doll for each of the characters and historically accurate clothes and accessories with which girls could play out the stories?’ 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.”

She spent a wintry weekend creating a detailed outline of the concept. “My pen flew as I tried to capture the idea that was just given to me—whole,” she said. “This was my business plan!” 


Rowland Reading Foundation, YouTube

Rowland had $1.2 million of textbook royalties saved, so rather than asking for money from investors, she funded what would become the Pleasant Company herself. “American Girl seemed like a million dollar idea,” she told CNN Money. “I put $200,000 aside in case all failed and plunged in.” The goal: Have the dolls ready by Christmas 1986.


1991 Pleasant Company Spring catalogue

Rowland had experience writing books, but she was at a loss for where to begin with the dolls—she didn’t even have a model to work with, so she sent a friend to Chicago to look for one. “By the end of the second day, she found one at Marshall Field's, down in the storeroom, covered with dust,” Rowland said. “Nobody had paid any attention to this doll because it had crossed eyes! The sales clerk had no idea where it had come from, but when we undressed the doll, sewn inside the underpants was a label that said ‘Gotz Puppenfabrik, Rodental, West Germany.’” Rowland made some calls, and not long after, found herself in Germany, “picking out fabrics and ribbons and clothes for the American Girl dolls.”

The 18-inch dolls would be manufactured in Germany, but the books would be made in the company’s Madison, Wisc. offices and the doll’s accessories would be made in China. (These days, both the dolls and their accessories are made in China, and assembled in and shipped from Wisconsin.) 


The first three dolls were Molly McIntire, who lived during World War II; Samantha Parkington, who lived just after the turn of the 20th century; and Kirsten Larson, who lived in the mid-19th century. "We knew that we wanted Samantha to have lived at the turn of the last century because we felt that that was an enormous turning point for women,” Tripp said. The orphaned Samantha might have been inspired by a comment from Rowland’s 8-year-old niece. “I asked her who she liked to read about,” Rowland told the Chicago Tribune in 1990, “and she said, ‘Oh, Aunt Pleasant, orphans.’”


“It was clear to me that American Girl was a thinking girl's product line, one that would not sell at Toys 'R' Us,” Rowland told CNN Money. “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 rather than create a commercial, which the company didn’t have the budget for anyway, or sell to toy stores directly (they had told her the dolls, at $82, were too expensive), Rowland decided that the dolls would be sold by direct mail.


When she was deep into development on the dolls, Rowland hired a marketing manager, who advised doing some focus groups with mothers. When the leader explained the concept to the group, “they thought it was the worst idea they'd ever heard,” Rowland remembered. “I was devastated—and terrified. It had never really entered my head that this idea could fail!” But once the women saw a doll with her accessories and a sample book, they loved it. “The experience crystallized a very important lesson for me: Success isn't in the concept. It's in the execution,” Rowland said. 


Even Tripp was initially skeptical. Rowland’s idea, she recalled at American Girl’s 25th anniversary celebration, was “met with disbelief and patronizing tolerance, summarized as, ‘Are you kidding? Historical dolls in the day and age of Barbie?’” According to Fortune, industry insiders told Rowland that no one would buy dolls with a price tag higher than $40. Lands’ End, which was filling Rowland in on the tricks of the direct marketing trade, thought she would fail. The list managing company in charge of her direct mailing list advised her to be cautious and send out just 100,000 catalogs. “I said, ‘No way,’” Rowland recalled to CNN Money. “We had to take our shot that Christmas, and American Girl would either succeed or fail. So we mailed 500,000 catalogs and crossed our fingers.” 


Rowland’s gamble paid off. Between September and December 1986, American Girl sold $1.7 million worth of product. And the numbers only went up from there: The company made $7.6 million in its second year and brought in $30 million in 1989. Twenty-seven million dolls have been sold since 1986. “For all the money the company made subsequently,” Rowland told CNN Money, “none of it was as fun or rewarding as that first million dollars.”


1991 Rowland Company Holiday Catalogue

For Rowland, the dolls and the books went hand in hand. “To bring the stories alive, I wanted to have the play experience to make the learning alive—to touch, to feel,” she told 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.” Rowland described the combination of learning and play as “chocolate cake with vitamins.”


From 1986 up through 2000, all the dolls had a six-book series with the same titles: 

Meet [Character]: An American Girl
[Character] Learns a Lesson: A School Story
[Character’s] Surprise: A Christmas Story
Happy Birthday, [Character]!: A Springtime Story
[Character] Saves the Day: A Summer Story
Changes for [Character]: A Winter Story

Each book cost $12.95 in hardcover or $5.95 in paperback. Kit, released in 2000, was the last doll with books that followed these naming conventions. The dolls released starting with Kaya in 2002 retained the first and last titles, but had four different books in the middle. With the rebranding of the historical line as BeForever in 2014, the books were repackaged into two volumes, and Maryellen, the first new character released after rebranding, only ever had stories in two volumes. 


After Pleasant Company’s second year in business, Rowland moved its headquarters from “a broken-down warehouse with one freight elevator” to a brand new space, just in time for for its third holiday season. Then, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I cut the ribbon on the new warehouse in the morning and went into the hospital that afternoon to have surgery,” she said. “It was a large tumor, and I had a poor prognosis, but throughout chemotherapy and radiation I never missed a day of work, and work is probably what saved me. Pleasant Company was on such a roll. I loved what I was doing, and after all my mind didn't have cancer. I just got through.” 


Pleasant Company 1997 Holiday Catalogue

In addition to outfits and accessories built around each doll’s books (Samantha’s birthday collection, for example, included a wicker table and chairs, a mohair teddy bear, and a doll pram, a lemonade set, party treats, a book, and a “lacy pinafore dress” with a flower crown, which could be purchased individually or as a set for $240), night time sets, which included a bed and a wardrobe or trunk to store clothes and accessories, and outfits that allowed girls to dress like their dolls, Pleasant Company also sold what they called Scenes & Settings. According to the 1997 holiday catalog (which had new doll Josefina on the cover), each was “a sturdy portfolio of five beautifully illustrated playscape scenes. It includes a bedroom, kitchen, school room, store, and outdoor scene to re-create the world of each American Girl.” The scenes were 5 feet wide by 2 feet tall and weighed about 7 pounds. Kirsten’s featured scenes were “America!” (a port of some kind), “The Larsen Cabin,” “Powderkeg School,” “Berkhoff’s General Store,” and “The North Woods.” 

Also for sale were accessory kits that, according to the catalog, “are historically accurate reproductions appropriate for children 8 and over.” Felicity’s Christmas Story, for example, had an optional Shrewsbury Cakes Kit, which the catalog billed as “A Fun Project!”: “Make colonial Christmas cupcakes just like Felicity did. An authentic recipe for Shrewsbury cakes is included in this kit.” The project for Happy Birthday, Addy! was a tiny ice cream freezer that actually worked!

Pleasant Rowland 1997 Holiday Catalogue

And it didn’t end there! American Girl obsessives could also buy paper dolls of their favorite characters, cookbooks, diaries, family history albums, Victorian valentines, a sewing sampler, a weaving loom, a straw ornaments kit, and more. There was an ad-free magazine and an American Girl fan club, too, and in 1997, these historical dolls got a high tech twist: a $35 CD-Rom called American Girl Premiere let girls create their own plays. 


The amount of company guidance on the creation of a character and her stories varies by doll. Tripp, who has written more than 30 American Girl books, drew from her own childhood experiences for the books. “Like Josefina, I have three sisters,” Tripp wrote in her website biography. “In winter there was sledding, ice-skating, or making snow angels, as Molly does in Molly's Surprise. [We] went roller-skating like Molly and Emily, or had picnics, as Josefina and her sisters do. Like Kit, sometimes we typed family newspapers on our father's old black typewriter. And just like Ruthie, we all spent a lot of time reading. Every Sunday afternoon, my father would take us to visit his elderly aunt and uncle, whom we called Aunt Clara and Uncle Frank. They lived in a pretty Victorian house, like Samantha and Grandmary. … My best friend, Bobby, was the inspiration for Kit's friend Ruthie.”

Jacqueline Dembar Greene, who wrote the Rebecca Rubin series, incorporated a moment from her own third grade experience into the books. Greene, who is Jewish, was asked to work on a Christmas project. “She didn’t know how to cope with it, and struggled with being attracted to it because it was pretty and fun and felt special, and her teacher expected it, but in her heart she knew it wasn’t right for her family or her culture,” the book’s editor, Jennifer Hirsch, told Forward. “So I said we have to get that in there. That tension really was a theme throughout the books … We felt there was something universal [in her story] of the tension in being a minority culture in America.” 

The illustrators, too, often find inspiration close to home. “Felicity’s younger sister and brother were my kids,” Dan Andreasen, who illustrated some of the earlier books, said. “Later when I did the Samantha books, I used my daughter as the model for Samantha and her best friend for Nellie.” 

Christine Kornacki, who illustrated Marie-Grace and Cécile, told the Hartford Observer [PDF] that she was given character descriptions, but also modeled the two girls after friends and family members. “Illustrating for American Girl is a highly structured, involved process,” she said. “I would read the stories first, which was exciting to me as an American Girl fan. Then I was given instructions on what to illustrate and a packet of historical information to interpret. ... American Girl gave me the descriptions of the characters, but, yes, you can say I created their image. Marie-Grace is modeled after my sister. A friend’s niece was the model for Cécile.”

Of course, not everyone had so much freedom. Novelist and college professor Connie Porter, who penned the Addy books, told the Los Angeles Times that “the character was completely mapped out. They had even decided on an over-arching plot line.” According to the paper, Porter also worked “under the watchful eye of an advisory committee of historians, educators, museum directors and filmmakers. Like Porter—and indeed like Addy—all the committee members were African-American.” 

Despite the constraints, Porter enjoyed working on the books. “Addy was a chance for me to give a voice to someone who would not have had a voice in her own time,” she told Kids Reads. in 1996, she told the Ocala Star-Banner that she saw the books as teaching tools: “I want children to see African-American people as part of strong, loving families, caught up in slavery, doing what they had to do to survive. I want them to realize Addy is part of a group of people. There were a million Addys out there. They lived and died.”


Mary Walker was an adult house servant who escaped life at a nearly 30,000-acre North Carolina plantation called Stagville, when she traveled with her owner to Philadelphia in 1848. Like Addy, Mary had to leave behind family—her mother and three children—and, like Addy, she was reunited with some of her family after the Civil War ended. You can read more about Mary Walker here


The American Girl headquarters has an actual library, where, according to a 2012 Chicago Tribune article, three librarians and historians “do the groundwork that provides everything from the best name for the doll to the details of the doll's life, which the designers and even the authors of American Girl books then work from.” Elsewhere in the headquarters, “There are drawers holding actual day dresses from the 1800s, antique umbrellas, old newspapers. And bins holding every conceivable doll part and accessory: straw hats, cloth hats, flocked hats, socks, sweaters, heads with hair, heads without hair.” 

The creation of each historical doll can take between three and five years. “We have an advisory board of historians, editors, writers and product designers,” Spanos told the Ashbury Park Press, “because we want to get it right. It takes a long time.” According to Racked, the company consults not just historians but also linguists and curators of museums, and takes research trips to pertinent areas (when researching Josefina, they went to Santa Fe, N.M.; for Rebecca, they visited New York City’s Lower East Side). They’ll even ask the committees to weigh in on things like when a girl’s story should begin—according to Forward, the board’s discussion about “whether to begin Addy’s story before or after emancipation was a passionate one.” In the end, they opted to begin the story just prior to when Addy and her mother escape, leaving Addy’s infant sister behind because her cries will give them away.

The company had long wanted to create a Native American doll "to show [7-to-12-year-old readers] that our country's history did not begin with the American Revolution," the company’s brand director, Julia Prohaska, told USA Today. The company didn’t want the doll to represent all Native American tribes but a specific tribe, so its representatives needed to figure out which tribes would be willing to work with them. After months of discussions, the Nez Perce tribe was chosen, not only because the tribe still exists but because they agreed to help advise on the creation of the doll, which would be named Kaya.

Ann McCormack, the tribe’s cultural arts coordinator who initially brought the idea to the tribe's executive committee, was part of an eight-person advisory committee that weighed in on book manuscripts and doll accessories and worked with the book’s author, Janet Shaw, to get everything historically accurate. No detail was too small: According to Racked, the advisory board even weighed in on things like how Kaya’s braids were positioned and the patterns on her pow-wow outfit. One big request: That Kaya’s stories be set at the peak of Nimíipuu (the original name of the Nez Perce) culture, so the books were set in 1764.

When Shaw began work on the books in the late ‘90s, she knew very little about the Nez Perce. “The Kaya stories are the written record of my own education in the Nez Perce people, their culture, and their beautiful country,” she told Kids Reads. “I settled in to read and study the materials that Pleasant Company's historical researchers were compiling—a long list that now numbers more than 90 books and articles. I studied photographs and made sketches of tools, jewelry, saddles, and tepees, and I visited museums all over the Northwest. But it wasn't until I met the Nez Perce people themselves that my true education began—and the world of black and white print began to change into color … At every step along the way, the members of the advisory board gave me guidance and corrected my mistakes. If these stories portray Nez Perce life truly and accurately, it is because of the dedicated attention they have given to the text, illustrations, and products.”

The doll was unveiled on the Nez Perce reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, in 2002. In addition to the “Looking Back” section that all American Girl dolls have, which gives key context to the events in the books, Kaya’s books also included information about Nez Perce life today. "In so many cases, children read about Native Americans as something of the past," Prohaska told USA Today. "It was really critical to the advisory board that we bring the story up to the present to show that there are 9-year-old Nez Perce girls today being influenced by their ancestors and culture."


There were a number of differences between Kaya and the other dolls: Whereas most dolls’ stories were built around birthdays, school, and holidays, "in 1764, the Nimíipuu had none of those patterns," author Janet Shaw told USA Today. In addition, "Kaya wouldn't have had a lot of the material things that are represented with the other dolls," Prohaska said.

But the biggest difference between Kaya and the other American Girl dolls was her mouth: All of the American Girl dolls have their two front teeth showing—except for Kaya. The Nez Perce advisors told the company that in their culture, it’s a sign of aggression.


Pleasant Company 1997 Holiday Catalogue

The original dolls were meant to be 9-year-old girls, and were targeted to 9-year-old girls, “an audience largely ignored before,” Rowland told CNN Money. “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.” The look-alike dolls, dubbed American Girl of Today, debuted in 1995. “She’s just like you,” the catalog said. “You’re a part of history too!” Like the other dolls, girls of today had accessories—everything from clothes to computer desks to beds. The names changed several times over the years: American Girl of Today became American Girl Today, which became “Just Like You” and “My American Girl” and, finally, “Truly Me” in 2015.


It was called "The American Girls Revue," and it played at Chicago’s American Girl Place from 1998 until 2008 (it could also be seen in stores in New York City and Los Angeles). Other American Girl-themed shows included "Circle of Friends: An American Girl Musical" and "Bitty Bear's Matinee: The Family Tree."


After building American Girl Place in Chicago and putting on an American Girl musical there, Rowland said that “my original business plan had been executed, and I was tired. It was time to sell the company ... Why Mattel? 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. During the same 13-year period that I built American Girl from zero to $300 million, Jill built Barbie from $200 million to $2 billion. An amazing feat.” 


After Mattel bought Pleasant Company, they appeared to shift focus from historical dolls to more contemporary dolls—which would allow them to release more product. Starting in 2001, the company began releasing Girl of the Year dolls, which were available for around a year before being archived forever. According to The Wall Street Journal, the dolls “debuts just after the holiday rush and in time for parents to rush back and buy yet more merchandise.” One doll, 2009’s Chrissa, was released with two friends dolls—the first and only time that’s been done so far.


The soft-bodied dolls have limbs and heads made of spun-cast vinyl, which leaves no visible seams. (Spin casting, according to the 3D printing company Stratasys, “uses centrifugal force to produce parts from a rubber mold. While spinning, casting material is poured into a mold, and centrifugal force pulls the material into the cavities.”) Over the years, American Girl has used eight molds to create the faces of its dolls. 

The most common is the so-called “Classic Mold,” which was used to create the original three American Girl dolls and many more since. Mold #2 was created in 1993 for Addy, while Mold #3 was used only for Just Like You Doll #4, then retired. Mold #4 was used for Josefina, and #5 for Kaya—the only mold that doesn’t create a face that shows two front teeth. According to The New Yorker, “American Girl almost literally broke the mold with Kaya, its first Native American doll; it had to create a new face shape to make her features more authentic.”

Mold #6 was created for Jess, the 2006 Girl of the Year, who was of Japanese and Irish descent; Mold #7 was created especially for Sonali, the “friend” character to 2009 GOTY Chrissa. The last mold, #8, was developed for Marie-Grace; because the doll was archived, the mold is no longer in use.


Mattel Felicity (left) and Pleasant Company Felicity (right). Image courtesy Never Grow Up Doll Guide.

According to collectors, there are a number of key differences between the dolls made before and after Mattel. Pleasant Company dolls—or PM, for pre-Mattel, as some call it—had softer vinyl parts, chubbier, softer bodies, thicker limbs, wider faces, and smaller eyes. Even their eyelashes were different; PM dolls had softer brown lashes, while dolls manufactured after Mattel’s takeover have stiff black lashes. According to Good Housekeeping, the dolls had “less color on their lips and cheeks, larger feet, and a chubbier (flesh-toned) body shape … Essentially, the dolls … have been Barbie-fied.”

The dolls are different internally, too: PM dolls, according to BAVAS International, had “high-quality individual joints ... The off-white elastic cord that holds the arms and legs to the body is quite thick and secured with one or more short, thick metal fasteners. Thanks to the squishiness of the vinyl, these dolls are much easier to restring.” After Mattel, though, “the elastic is a little less thick, often leading to loose limbs requiring restringing ... In what we can only guess is a cost-cutting measure, the newest of the new dolls are not secured with metal fasteners, but instead, just a knot in the cord. We’ve noticed that this can lead to some defects.” 


There have been 17 historical dolls, and a number have been archived, including Kirsten (released in 1986, archived in 2010); Molly (released in 1986, archived in 2013) and her best friend Emily Bennett (released in 2006, archived in 2013); Felicity (released in 1991, archived in 2011) and her best friend Elizabeth Cole (released 2005, archived in 2011); Cécile Rey and Marie-Grace Gardiner (released in 2011 and archived in 2014); Samantha’s best friend Nellie (released in 2004, archived in 2008 after selling out); Kit’s best friend Ruthie Smithens (released in 2008, archived in 2014); and Julie’s best friend Ivy Ling (released in 2007 and archived in 2014). Samantha was archived in 2009, but was re-released as part of the BeForever line in 2014. According to the American Girl website, it’s an inventory decision: “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.” But, Spanos told The Atlantic, the company “still considers the historical characters to be the heart of the brand.”


Even a beloved brand like American Girl can’t entirely escape controversy. In 2005, some conservative groups boycotted American Girl when they discovered that the company had a partnership with Girls Inc., an organization that “inspires all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.” American Girl was donating proceeds from the sale of a wristband that read “I Can” to three specific Girl Inc. programs, which aimed to build girls’ science and math skills, develop leadership skills, and encouraging participation in athletics. What’s to hate about that? According to USA Today, the Mississippi-based American Family Association called Girls Inc. "a pro-abortion, pro-lesbian advocacy group." American Girl responded with a statement, saying that, "We are profoundly disappointed that certain groups have chosen to misconstrue American Girl's purely altruistic efforts and turn them into a broader political statement on issues that we, as a corporation, have no position.”

When Mattel began archiving historical characters and releasing more contemporary dolls, critics were not pleased. In an essay for The Atlantic titled “American Girls Aren’t Radical Anymore,” Amy Schiller wrote that “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.” And at The Washington Post, Alexandra Petri wrote, “Dolls Just Like Us. Is this really what we want? The image is embarrassing—privileged, comfortable, with idiotic-sounding names and few problems that a bake sale wouldn’t solve. Life comes to them in manageable, small bites, pre-chewed. No big adventures. No high stakes. … Yes, I know there are plenty worse toys out there. Still, it pangs. These dolls were once a stand-out.” 

Then, in 2009, the company released its Girl of the Year, Chrissa, with two friend dolls—and one, named Gwen, becomes homeless. While some applauded the company’s effort to bring attention to homelessness, others were not so pleased. Tanya Tull, president of Beyond Shelter, thought the dolls might send the wrong message to girls: "[I’m] afraid that they're going to pick up the idea that it's OK, that it's an accepted segment of society that some children are homeless and some children are not," Tull told CBS News. One homeless woman, who initially embraced the doll, changed her mind when she found out that American Doll wasn’t donating any of the proceeds from its sales to homeless charities. (The company later said it had given $500,000 since 2006 to HomeAid, a company that tries to find the homeless housing.) Time named the doll one of its Top 10 Dubious Toys—but the company stood behind its doll: “Our singular goal with these stories is to help girls find their inner star by becoming kind, compassionate, and loving people who make a positive and meaningful difference in the world around them.”


“Choose your doll, and show who you will become,” according to The Washington Post. Everyone from The New Yorker—“Felicitys were the horse girls. Kirstens had arts-and-crafty streaks. Addys were bossy and always decided which game we would play next. Mollys were cool nerds before that was a thing. Samanthas—well, Samanthas were bookish but outdoorsy, smart but not show-off-y, and loyal friends”—to Flavorwire—“Samantha girls: generally high-maintenance; Kirsten girls: sportier than their counterparts; Molly girls: bookworms”—has weighed in on this. If you want to know what American Girl doll you are, take this MTV quiz.

Why a Major Error in 'A Wrinkle in Time' Was Never Corrected

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, and thanks to the recent release of a big-budget Disney adaptation, the book is just as popular as ever. The book has earned its status as a modern classic, but according to the Daily Beast, there's something hiding in the text of every copy that is rarely seen in titles that have enjoyed such a long print run. The book features an error that's been reprinted millions of times, and unless you read Greek, you would likely never notice it.

The mistake falls on page 59 of the new Square Fish edition that was published to tie in with the new film. On that page you'll find a quote from Mrs Who, one of the three mystical beings that guide the protagonist Meg and her companions across the universe. Because verbalizing in her own words takes a lot of energy, Mrs Who communicates strictly by quoting great writers and thinkers from history. In this case, she's quoting the playwright Euripides in his original ancient Greek. She follows it with the English translation, "Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything," but Greek speakers will notice that the two quotes don't match up. The original line in Greek includes words that don't make sense together or don't exist at all.

How was such a glaring error able to go unnoticed in a major work for so long? The answer is that it didn't: L'Engle was made aware of it by a friend of Greek heritage in the 1990s. According to L'Engle's granddaughter, the writer could trace the typo back to the Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations, the book she pulled all of Mrs Who's quotes from. While transcribing the Euripides quote by hand she must have omitted a letter by accident. The quote was further removed from the original when the typesetter chose the Greek characters from her manuscript.

Even after hearing about the mistake, L'Engle didn't make fixing it her top priority. Instead she invested her energy into tackling other copyediting issues for the 1993 reprint, like removing all the periods from Mrs Who's, Mrs Which's, and Mrs Whatsit's names. When L'Engle died in 2007, the mangled quote was still standard in new copies of A Wrinkle in Time.

To date, only one English-language edition of the book contains the corrected quotation: the 1994 audiobook narrated by L'Engle herself. But the publishers of A Wrinkle in Time at Macmillan are apparently aware of the error, so the next printing may finally be the one that gets it right.

[h/t Daily Beast]

iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
When German Scientists Tried to Rename Bats and Shrews, Hitler Threatened to Send Them to War
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski

In The Art of Naming (The MIT Press), Michael Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, delves into the art, science, language, and history of taxonomy. There are some 1.8 million known species—and scientists estimate that 100 million more await discovery. Every one will need a name. How does the process work? 

Ohl takes us into the field with the explorers and scientists at the forefront of naming the natural world, including Father Armand David, a French priest who was the first to describe the panda to the Western world; American paleontologists Edward Dinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who bitterly battled in the Bone Wars; and Polish biologist Benedykt Dybowski, whose unique naming system for crustaceans called gammarids (a.k.a. "scuds") resulted in tongue-twisters such as Cancelloidokytodermogammarus (Loveninsuskytodermogammarus) loveni.

In the excerpt below, Ohl tells the story of one of the little-known footnotes to World War II: When Adolf Hitler threatened the German biologists who wanted to rename bats and shrews. And, read on for the best bat nickname of all time: "bacon mouse."

—Jen Pinkowski


On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. "Fledermaus No Longer!" the bold letters proclaimed. The following short text was printed underneath:

"At its 15th General Assembly, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the zoologically misleading names 'Spitzmaus' [shrew] and 'Fledermaus' [bat] to 'Spitzer' and 'Fleder.' Fleder is an old form for Flatterer [one that flutters]. The Spitzmaus, as it happens, has borne a variety of names: Spitzer [one that is pointed], Spitzlein, Spitzwicht, Spitzling. Over the course of the conference, several important lectures were held in the auditorium of the Zoologisches Museum […]."

To this day, despite the problems announced by Germany's leading specialists on mammals on the pages of one of the capital's daily papers, fledermaus and spitzmaus remain the common German names for bats and shrews. Neither dictionaries nor specialized nature guides contain entries for fleder or spitzer (provided one disregards the primary definition of spitzer, which is a "small implement used for the sharpening of pencils").

Indeed, a swift response to the item in question arrived from an unexpected source. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler's private secretary, sent a message on March 4, 1942, to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery. The missive contained remarkably unambiguous instructions from Hitler:

"In yesterday's newspapers, the Führer read an item regarding the changes of name ratified by the German Society for Mammalogy on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. The Führer subsequently instructed me to communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately. Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged. Should such asinine renamings occur once more, the Führer will unquestionably take appropriate measures; under no circumstance should terms that have become established over the course of many years be altered in this fashion."

There's no question that the "responsible parties" understood and responded to the injunction, which could hardly have been misinterpreted. On July 1, 1942, at least, a notice was printed in the Zoologischer Anzeiger—at that time, the "organ of the German Zoological Society"—that comprised a scant five lines. The notice has no byline and can most likely be attributed to the journal's publishers:

"Regarding the discussion [in earlier issues of the Zoologischer Anzeiger] about potential changes to the names 'Fledermaus' and 'Spitzmaus,' the Editors wish to make public that terms that have become established over the course of many years are not to be altered, following an announcement by the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture, as per the Führer's directive."

It's conceivable that Lammers forwarded Hitler's instructions (which had reached him by way of Bormann) to Bernhard Rust, the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture. Rust will then likely have ordered one of the "parties responsible" for the unpopular initiative to publish the retraction in the appropriate platform. The Zoologischer Anzeiger fit the bill, considering the fact that by 1941 it had already featured two articles debating whether the name spitzmaus should be changed.

What is the problem, though, that veteran scientists have with spitzmaus and fledermaus, those innocuous terms for the shrew and the bat? And how could it come to pass that Adolf Hitler—preoccupied as he was in 1942— should personally join in the campaign for the correct classification of these small mammals?


The common thread in these two unremarkable and familiar terms is of course the second word component, maus, or "mouse."

Fledermaus and spitzmaus … are (linguistically) first and foremost mice. By referencing certain characteristics in these compound words (fleder comes from flattern, "to flap"; spitz, or "point," refers to the shrew's pointy nose or rather head shape), it becomes possible to provide a clear name—or almost clear, at least, because there are many bat and shrew species, but more on that later.

Both names, of course, imply affiliation with mice, and that's the sticking point. In zoological terms, mice are a group of rodents known at the higher level of classification as Muroidea, "muroids" or the "mouse-like." The group includes quite the mix of animal groups, with occasionally curious names like zokor, blind mole-rat, spiny tree mouse, and Chinese pygmy dormouse, not to mention our pet hamsters and those domestic but unwelcome mice and rats. Common to all muroids are sundry and complex structural features in the skull, coupled of course with the oversized, continually growing incisors typical of rodents. Beyond that, although endless evolutionary gimmickry can revolve around this mouse theme (long or short legs, different fur colors and tail lengths, and much more), and even without biological expertise, most muroids tend to be identifiable as mice, if only vaguely.

Zoologically speaking, a mere mouse-like appearance is insufficient to denote a muroid. Instead, the specific anatomical features of the skull must be in evidence.

Field, house, and deer mice are familiar to many North Americans, although they typically live hidden away, and we don't often encounter them. These animals with the "mouse" base in their name are truly mice in the zoological sense.

The same cannot exactly be said for the bat and shrew—the fledermaus and spitzmaus—despite their names. Neither of them is even a rodent or, consequently, a muroid. Then what are they?

In the classification of mammals, a whole series of groupings is traditionally distinguished, usually assigned the rank of order within the class of mammals. Depending on scientific opinion, there are 25 to 30 of these orders of mammals. Rodents comprise one of these orders, to which muroids and several other groups of mammals belong.

Bats, meanwhile, are typical representatives of the order of flying mammals. Their scientific name is Chiroptera, from the Greek words chiros (hand) and pteros (wings). Chiroptera, then, means "hand-flier," which is a fitting name for bats and their closest relatives, flying foxes.

The systematic placement of the shrew, or spitzmaus, is determined in much the same way. They, too, fail to possess the mouse characteristics in question, although they do share traits with moles and hedgehogs, as well as with the solenodon (meaning "slotted tooth"), which is a venomous critter native exclusively to the Caribbean islands. They are now situated under the wondrous designation Eulipotyphla, but only since 1999. How they are related—along with ties to an array of other mammal families, such as tenrecs, desmans, and golden moles—has not been conclusively explained.

Experts have known for a long time—since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae at the latest—that neither bats nor shrews are related to mice, to which common parlance pays no heed. The fledermaus and spitzmaus comfortably maintain their spots in the lexicon.


One of the first mammal biologists to campaign for the standardization of German mammal names was Hermann Pohle. Born in Berlin in 1892, Pohle remained faithful to the city until his death and spent a large part of his life working at the natural history museum there. His career as a mammal biologist started early, when as a university student he worked as an unpaid hireling in the museum's famed mammal collection. Through diligence, endurance, and scientific acumen, he worked his way up to head curator of mammals. He thus held one of the most influential positions, of both national and international significance, in the field of systematic mammal research.

In 1926, Pohle—along with Ludwig Heck, the former director of the Berlin Zoo, and a number of other colleagues—founded the German Society for Mammalogy, of which he was the first head. Pohle thus had his finger on the pulse of mammal research, as it were, and he followed the history of the society over the next five decades "with keen interest," as one biographer noted.

In addition to his work as a researcher and curator of the mammal collection at Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), Pohle's interests also lay with German mammal names. Not only did he push for standardization of names, Pohle also campaigned to have existing names assessed for scientific plausibility and changed, should they not pass (his) zoological muster.

In 1942, Pohle published a summary article addressing the question, "How many species of mammals live in Germany?" He appended a comprehensive list of all German mammals, each with its correct "technical name," as Pohle called it, as well as its corresponding German name. When it came to the various species of spitzmaus (of which the Germans have eight, incidentally, despite the long-standing impression that there is "the" one and only shrew) and the 16 species of bats that have the base word "fledermaus" in their name, Pohle consistently uses alternative terms. The eight shrew species thus became waldspitzer, zwergspitzer, alpenspitzer, wasserspitzer, mittelspitzer, feldspitzer, gartenspitzer, and hausspitzer. For the bats, the base of their compound name was changed to fleder: teichfleder, langfußfleder, wasserfleder, and so on, all the way to a term of particular elegance, wimperfleder.

Pohle's article, which predates the society's 15th General Assembly and Hitler's emotional veto by more than a year, is a particularly interesting source because he also shares his actual motivations for the suggested changes. His emphatic objective is to see "the term 'Maus' disappear, responsible as it is for laypersons' wont to lump the animals together with actual mice."

In the estimation of these laypersons, mice are something "ugly and destructive that must be fought, or ideally exterminated." Shrews and bats, harmless as they are to humans, are thus subject to the same brutal fate. Pohle hopes for a "shift in perspective" to occur, once the endangered animals are no longer referred to as mice.

What to do, then? Pohle would prefer the term spitz for spitzmaus, but it's already been assigned to a dog breed. Rüssler could also work, only it already applies to some other insectivore. That leaves spitzer, a name that emphasizes the pointy head as a distinguishing characteristic and is still available.

Pohle wants a name for bats without "maus" but happily with a nod to the animals' flying ability. Most names of this kind are already employed for birds, and "flatterer" or "flutterer" could only logically be used for a certain population of bats, namely, those bad at flying. "Flieger" or "flyer," another hot candidate, is also in use by various other animal groups.

But why, Pohle asks the reader, would one even need to say "fledermaus," when "fleder" actually makes perfect sense? Pohle mentions that the original meaning of "fleder" was different, but few people were aware of this fact anymore.

On the off chance that he was correct in this assessment, let it be noted that fledermaus can be traced back to the 10th century, to the Old High German "vledern" or "flattern" (the infinitive form of "flatterer"). The image of the bat as a "fluttering mouse" has existed since this time in many languages, including "flittermouse" in English. A number of other German terms exist for bats. In some regions of Germany, such as Rhineland-Palatinate and Southern Hesse, the Old High German "fledarmus" is said to have been used to describe nocturnal creatures, such as moths. There, bats were apparently called "speckmaus," instead of fledermaus, because while hibernating, they could be seen hanging like pieces of bacon (speck) in the smoke.

Pohle's dedication to promoting the protection of bats and shrews through a bold name change reached its temporary culmination a year later, when—at the 15th General Assembly of the German Society for Mammalogy in Berlin—a resolution was passed on a universal and binding adoption of the spitzer- and fleder-based names Pohle had suggested. The results are known: Hitler was not amused.


We can only guess at what Hitler's actual motive was in issuing such drastic threats to prevent the name alterations proposed by the German Society for Mammalogy. It could have been his outrage that in 1942—hard times because of the war—leading German intellectuals were concerned with something so unimportant and banal as the appropriateness of animal names. Perhaps this anecdote is just a further example of Hitler's hostility toward intellectuals.

It is ultimately unclear, even, to what extent Hitler was the driving force behind this directive or whether this is a case of subordinates "working towards the Führer," as historian Ian Kershaw describes it. Conceivably, after reading the Berliner Morgenpost, Hitler may have remarked negatively regarding the zoologists' plans. His circle—in this case, Bormann—may have immediately interpreted this as "the Führer's will" and sprung to action accordingly. As for Pohle and his colleagues, it can't have mattered much whether the "invitation" to the Eastern Front came directly from Hitler or was communicated in an act of premature obedience.

Whatever the case may be, Pohle's suggested name changes did not fail because of Hitler's intervention, which presumably resonated as little with the German-speaking public as the original notice. Pohle failed because he wanted to take the basic idea of a standardized naming system out of the scientific context and transfer it into the realm of vernacular. Everyday German is not formally and officially regulated, and like every other vernacular, it follows different rules than scientific speech. It is shaped by a multitude of factors and influences that have their own unpredictable dynamic, which leads to some word usages changing while others stabilize.

In kindergarten, we learn that small, furry four-legged animals with a tail are "mice." This act of naming fulfills the exact function expected of it. It "tags" specific linguistic content—a meaning—that is generally understood. The difference between muroids and insectivores, which is important to zoologists, has no application in everyday confrontations with "mouse-like" animals and makes no difference to most people. A mouse is a mouse, whether a striped field mouse or a shrew.


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