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Dolls via Pleasant Company Catalogue // Collage by Chloe Effron

25 Spirited Facts About American Girl Dolls

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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.

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps

The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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Warner Bros.
This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
Original image
Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]


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