Inspire a Cultural Icon: Remembering American Girl

The year was 2001. I was six years old and my family was planning a mini-trip to Chicago. Growing up in the Midwest, Chicago was a quick and easy destination. It was a bustling city much different than what I was accustomed to, but it was still exciting. For this trip, my older sister and I were excited about one visit in particular:

Going to the American Girl Place. 

In 2001, the American Girl Place (now referred to as the American Girl Store) was simply an experience you had to see in person. Apart from the store (with the dolls and hundreds of dresses), there was also a cafe where you could have lunch with your doll. She could sit in her own chair attached to the end of the table. Then, you could sit with your doll in the American Girl Theatre, where young girls presented the stories in the historic American Girl books. It was a wonderful experience, but my sister and I had one problem:

We didn't own a doll.

The American Girl Place Cafe, where dolls could sit at your table and have lunch with you (photo/Gawker).

We went to the American Girl Place because we were fans of the stories. My sister had read all of the historic books and I was just beginning to work my way through the stories. We collected paper dolls and we had a genuine interest in American Girl. When we went to the American Girl Place, our mother made sure we understood that we wouldn't be buying a doll. They were too expensive. We understood this and we didn't complain.

But that doesn't mean we weren't envious of the other little girls who brought their beautiful dolls to the American Girl Place. Everywhere you looked, girls had dolls. At this point, we were still okay with not buying a doll. But when we arrived at the cafe and we saw girls could have lunch with their doll, our mom turned around and said, "Okay, let's buy you both a doll." We were the only girls at the store without dolls, and I suppose our mom didn't want us to be left out of the fun.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: My mom is the best mother in the world.

We knew exactly what dolls we wanted to buy. My sister selected Molly McIntire, the girl from World War II. I chose Samantha Parkington, the girl from 1904 who lived with her grandmother ("Grandmary"). We bought the dolls, brought them to lunch with us and the afternoon theatre performance, and the rest is history.

My sister and I having lunch at the American Girl Place Cafe with our dolls. 

A few years later, I added three more dolls to my collection: Felicity Merriman (the girl from the American Revolutionary War), Elizabeth Cole (Felicity's best friend), and Nellie O'Malley (Samantha's best friend). I fell in love with American Girl dolls--but not just the dolls themselves, but the stories and messages they presented to young girls.

Our collection of American Girl dolls.

On September 14, 1986, American Girl released their first collection of dolls and girls immediately connected with the stories told from young girls just like them. The historic American Girl dolls include the following:

  • Kirsten Larson (A young Swedish immigrant who lives in Minnesota during the pioneer age)
  • Samantha Parkington (An orphaned girl who lives with her Grandmary in the Edwardian-Victorian period) 
  • Molly McIntire (A young WWII girl whose father is stationed overseas as a war doctor) 
  • Felicity Merriman (A horse-loving girl in Williamsburg, Virginia, who is caught between Patriot and Loyalist family and friends during the American Revolutionary War)
  • Addy Walker (A young fugitive slave who escapes and heads north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her mother during the American Civil War)
  • Josefina Montoya (A young Mexican girl living in New Mexico at the end of the Mexican War of Independence and 1824 Constitution of Mexico) 
  • Kitt Kittredge (An aspiring young reporter living during the Great Depression)
  • Kaya (A young Native-American living in the pre-contact Northwest)
  • Julie Albright (A young girl living in the 1970s while experiencing societal changes, including divorce, feminism, gender equality in school sports, the disability rights movement, and environmentalism) 
  • Rebecca Rubin (A young Jewish girl of Russian descent living in New York City in 1914) 
  • Marie-Grace Gardner (A young girl living in New Orleans during the 1853 Yellow Fever Epidemic)
  • Cecile Rey (A young girl from a rich African-American family in New Orleans during the 1853 Yellow Fever Epidemic)
  • Caroline Abbott (A young girl living in New York during the War of 1812)
  • Maryellen Larkin (A young girl living in Daytona Beach, Florida in the 1950s) 
  • Melody Ellison (A young girl living with her family in Detriot, Michigan during the Civil Rights Movement) 
  • Nanea Mitchell (A young girl living in Honolulu, Hawaii during the bombing of Pearl Harbor) 
As you can see, there are more than enough options to choose from for the historic collection of American Girl dolls. Since 1986, more than 21 million dolls have been sold and more than 46 million visitors have traveled to the American Girl stores. American Girl became a cultural phenomenon for young girls. They loved the dolls themselves (and all of the beautiful outfits representing their select time period), but they also love the stories.

Historical American Girl dolls (photo/The Way Home).

I don't mean to get critical of my public school education, but I learned the majority of my history lessons from the American Girl books. In my school, history classes focused heavily on the American Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War. Every year, we would repeat the cycle and begin again with the Revolutionary War. We would "run out of time" at the end of the school year just when we were beginning to discuss World War I. 

So, I learned about the early 1900s from reading Samantha's books. I learned about WWII from reading Molly's story. I learned about the Great Depression from reading Kit's books. I learned more about slavery in the Civil War by reading Addy's books. And the list could go on and on.

The American Girl doll books: Samantha, Molly, and Addy. 

The American Girl doll books: Kirsten, Josefina, Felicity, and short story collections.

To me, American Girl involves more than just dolls. They're a significant documentation of history. Every girl has inspiring stories--from Felicity who befriended Loyalists, even though she wasn't supposed to; Addy, who braved living in a new city as a fugitive slave; Kirsten, who braved living in an entirely new country as an immigrant; Samantha, who tested what a young girl in 1904 could and could not do; Molly, who had to grow up a lot faster than some because of WWII; and Josefina, who wanted to become a healer and support her family during their time of change.

Various doll clothing.

Every story is unique and represents an era of history we need to learn. If it wasn't for the American Girl books and dolls, I would know less about WWII. I wouldn't know as much about the Civil War from a slave's perspective. I would feel less inspired--less cultured. 

Thanks to American Girl, I will always remember a piece of history, and the dolls that helped me understand myself a little bit more. The dolls have always been there for me. 

And I will always be there for them. 



  1. Outstanding, well-written blog entry. I love how the dolls introduced you to different periods of time in history.


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