Consumer Products

The Road to Rochester: American Girl dolls

Throughout October, Kidscreen will take a peek at each of this year's 12 nominees for the Toy Hall of Fame, located within the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY. First up: the American Girl dolls.
October 14, 2014

Throughout October, Kidscreen will take a peek at each of this year’s 12 nominees for the Toy Hall of Fame, located within the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY. Among its inductees are Crayola Crayons, Barbie and Silly Putty. Today, we look at one more toy that could join the list: the American Girl doll.

It all started with three: Kirsten, a farm girl from Minnesota during the pioneer days of 1854; Samantha (pictured), an orphan who lives with her rich grandmother in the early 1900s; and Molly, a patriotic girl growing up during World War II. Created in 1986, the American Girl dolls were 18-inches tall and came with books for each character to tell stories of America’s cultural history from various generations. The collection grew to include those from colonial times, the Civil War and the modern day.

“They came with some sense of how these different dolls of different periods and different ethnicities fit into historical context,” says Christopher Bensch, chief curator of the Strong Museum. “They not only provided a play opportunity, but they provided an educational opportunity at the same time.”

Created by educator and newscaster Pleasant Rowland, The Pleasant Company released a My American Girl doll line in 1995 which could be customized so that the dolls look like the girls who own them. The doll could be designed to match the owner’s skin, hair or eye color, which created a sense of self-identification for girls too. “It allowed a type of play that was different from what a fashion doll or baby doll allowed,” Bensch adds.

Mattel acquired the rights to the doll line in 1998, and while they were criticized last year in The Atlantic that the dolls were losing their historical focus, the toyco unveiled the BeForever line of American Girl this summer. Not only will Mattel introduce Kaya, a Nez Perce girl from 1764, and Julie, a 1970s girl with a hippie vibe, but American Girl will also reintroduce Samantha, who had been archived in 2008.

And while Mattel has struggled in recent quarterly statements, not to mention losing the rights to Disney Frozen dolls come 2016, the direct-to-consumer American Girl brand has stayed strong with quarterly sales up 6% to US$83.1 million in the most recent quarter.

“There aren’t so many dolls that have the kind of longevity the Toy Hall of Fame requires. So many lines have faded out against the juggernaut of Barbie over the years,” Bensch says. “American Girl has proven it has staying power since 1986.”

The three main criteria for induction into the hall of fame are (1) longevity, (2) recognition or icon status, and (3) encourage learning, creativity and discovery. This year’s other 11 nominees are: bubbles, Fisher Price Little People, Hess toy trucks, Little Green Army Men, My Little Pony, Operation, paper airplane, pots and pans, Rubik’s Cube, Slip ‘N Slide and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The two inductees for 2014 will be announced on November 6.

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