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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.

1. THEY WERE INSPIRED BY A VISIT TO WILLIAMSBURG—AND A TRIP TO THE TOY STORE.

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!” 

2. PLEASANT ROWLAND FUNDED THE COMPANY HERSELF ...

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.

3. ... BUT HAD NO IDEA HOW TO MAKE THE DOLLS OR THEIR HISTORICALLY ACCURATE ACCESSORIES. 

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.) 

4. ROWLAND AND TRIPP CONCEPTUALIZED THE FIRST THREE DOLLS.

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.’”

5. THE COMPANY USED AN UNUSUAL MARKETING STRATEGY.

“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.

6. FOCUS GROUPS INITIALLY HATED THE CONCEPT.

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. 

7. EVERYONE SAID IT WAS A BAD IDEA.

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.” 

8. THE COMPANY WAS IMMEDIATELY SUCCESSFUL. 

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.”

9. THE BOOKS WERE A KEY PART OF ROWLAND’S STRATEGY.

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.”

10. THE ORIGINAL DOLLS CAME WITH SIX BOOKS THAT FOLLOWED NAMING CONVENTIONS.

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. 

11. ROWLAND WAS DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER EARLY IN THE COMPANY'S HISTORY. 

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.” 

12. THERE WERE A BUNCH OF ACCESSORIES AND KITS YOU MIGHT NOT REMEMBER. 

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. 

13. THE AUTHORS SOMETIMES BASED THE BOOKS ON THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES.

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.”

14. ADDY WALKER’S STORY WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL WOMAN. 

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

15. EACH HISTORICAL CHARACTER IS THOROUGHLY RESEARCHED.

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."

16. KAYA WAS DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHER AMERICAN GIRL DOLLS IN MANY KEY WAYS—AND ONE REALLY BIG ONE.

AmericanGirl.com

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.

17. THE BRAND EVENTUALLY EXPANDED TO WITH PRODUCTS LIKE “BITTY BABIES” AND LOOK-ALIKE DOLLS.

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.

18. THERE WERE AMERICAN GIRL MUSICALS. 

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."

19. ROWLAND SOLD HER COMPANY TO MATTEL IN 1998 FOR $700 MILLION.

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.” 

20. THERE’S A “GIRL OF THE YEAR” RELEASED ANNUALLY. 

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.

21. THERE HAVE BEEN EIGHT FACE MOLDS.

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.

22. THERE ARE KEY DESIGN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PLEASANT COMPANY AND MATTEL DOLLS.

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.” 

23. SOME HISTORICAL CHARACTERS HAVE BEEN ARCHIVED. 

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.”

24. THERE HAVE BEEN OCCASIONAL CONTROVERSIES.

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.”

25. LOTS OF PEOPLE THINK THE DOLL YOU HAD SAID SOMETHING ABOUT WHAT KIND OF GIRL YOU WERE.

“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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Cover of Its All Relative
Simon & Schuster

What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

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4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

Cover of The Hate U Give
Amazon

Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

The book cover for Atlas Obscura's book
Amazon.com

An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

Find it: Amazon

7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

Find It: The Public Domain Review

8. FOR PEOPLE WHO LOVE A GOOD MYSTERY: THE BIG BOOK OF ROGUES AND VILLAINS, EDITED BY OTTO PENZLER; $25

Cover of the Big Book of Rogues and Villains
Amazon

At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

Find It: Amazon

9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

Find It: Amazon

10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

Book cover for Her Body and Other Parties
Amazon

A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

Find It: Amazon

11. FOR THE PERSON WHO LOVES BIG-DEAL LITERARY NOVELS AND ALSO ABRAHAM LINCOLN: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, BY GEORGE SAUNDERS; $18

A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

Find It: Amazon

12. FOR THE GENERALIST: A BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH SUBSCRIPTION; $45 FOR THREE MONTHS

A book of the month club subscription box with gift trappings nearby
Book of the Month Club

Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


Getty Images

In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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