American Girl

American Girl

American Girl, a subsidiary of Mattel, manufactures historical and contemporary 18” dolls, baby dolls, toddler dolls, doll outfits and matching children's clothing, and period accurate accessories and furniture. American Girl’s flagship historical line teaches girls ages 8 years old and up what growing up was like during important times in America’s past. The company’s mission is to “celebrate girls and all that they can be.”1

For girls ages 10 and older, their bimonthly magazine, American Girl, communicates the message “You're great – just the way you are!”2 Both of these messages fulfill their mission to help girls “embrace who they are today and look forward to who they will become tomorrow.”3

Pleasant Rowland, a former elementary school teacher, a television news anchor, and a children's textbook writer, founded Pleasant Company, precursor to American Girl, in 1986.4 Early in the 1980s, Pleasant was inspired by a visit to historical Williamsburg, Virginia to explore a way to teach history to children that was both fun and educational. She was dismayed to find no child appropriate books to share this time period with young learners. To fill this gap, Pleasant produced an illustrated family guidebook to Williamsburg for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation through her publishing company, Pleasantry Press, which preceded Pleasant Company.

Seeking a further avenue to bring history into children's lives, Pleasant noticed a toy industry gap between the babyish Cabbage Patch dolls and the adult-like Barbie. In 1985, Pleasant combined her love of American history and commitment to high-quality educational products to create what was then called The American Girls Collection®, a line of historically accurate books, dolls, and accessories.

After research at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Pleasant designed three dolls: Kirsten, a Swedish pioneer girl in Minnesota during the mid-1800s; Samantha, a wealthy orphan in Mt. Pleasant, NY early in the 1900s; and Molly, a girl from the Midwest growing up on the home front during World War II.5

For the Christmas 1986 season, the dolls were manufactured in West Germany, offered through a plush catalog, advertised in high-end magazines, such as Smithsonian and New Yorker, and distributed from the company’s headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin.6 Each doll included a fiction book of what it would be like for a 9-year-old girl to live in that time and place. By 1988, each historical character’s story had grown to be a set of six books which followed the girl as she uses “determination, imagination, courage, and hope” to “turn challenges into triumphs.”7

In 1989, Pleasant Company had grown from 3 employees to 161 full time employees, and their annual sales had reached $32.2 million. They moved to a 107,000 square foot office and distribution center in nearby Middleton, Wisconsin. The following year in 1990, they added the New Baby Collection, which were baby dolls designed for toddlers who were about to become big sisters. These non-historical dolls came with a pop-up book, baby doll care items, and matching toddler clothes.8

Over the years,ten other historical characters were added: Felicity Merriman (1991), a colonial girl just before the Revolutionary War; Addy Walker (1993), an escaped slave during the Civil War; Josefina Montoya (1997), a Spanish girl in New Mexico in the 1820s; Kit Kittredge (2000), a Midwest girl during the Depression; Kaya (2002), a Nez Perce girl in the Northwest in 1764; Julie Albright (2007), a San Franciscan girl of the 1970s; Rebecca Rubin (2009), a Russian Jewish immigrant girl in New York City in the 1910s; Marie-Grace Gardner and Cécile Rey (2011), friends of different cultures in New Orleans before the Civil War; and Caroline (2012), a girl living on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812.9 Over the years, some of the dolls have been“retired” and are no longer available.

Six years after the first historical dolls were introduced, in 1992, the company launched American Girl magazine, which included fiction and nonfiction stories of girls in different historical settings as well as articles on current girl topics and craft ideas. It was meant to be “a celebration of girlhood,” and again filled a gap in age appropriate magazines between those for younger children and those for older teens.

The company expanded its publishing efforts in 1994 with America at School, a third-to fifth-grade school curriculum based on five American Girl dolls – Kirsten, Samantha, Molly, Felicity, and Addy – and their school experiences. With the story books, historical maps, teacher's guide, and activity cards, they focused on language arts and social studies skills for boys and girls. Pleasant Company also published the American Girls Pastimes Collection that included a cookbook, craft book, paper doll book, and theater kit for each doll.10

In 1995, Pleasant Company put out two new doll lines, neither of which were historically based. American Girl of Today, now known as My American Girl, is an 18” contemporary doll line that allows a girl to personalize her doll by choosing from over 40 different combinations of eye color, hair color and style, and skin tone, as well as whether she will have glasses, braces, or earrings. Each My American Girl doll comes with access to Innerstar University, an online world where a girl’s doll comes to life.  In the online world, the doll character is guided to be her best through games, quizzes, and challenges. Through online play, the girls earn awards, meet friends, and receive “real-life tips for boosting their confidence and spirit.”11

The second, the Bitty Baby collection  is a line of high-quality baby dolls with storybooks, outfits, and accessories that encourages nurturing play among girls ages 3 and up. The soft-bodied 15” Bitty Baby doll is available with seven different skin tones and various eye and hair colors. Each Bitty Baby comes with a 5” bear companion, who is the subject of corresponding story or activity books.12 The Bitty Baby line also includes Bitty Twins, a collection of 15” dolls available in different combinations based on gender, skin tone, and hair color that come in pairs with an array of early reader storybooks, coordinating doll outfits, and accessories.13

As Pleasant Company was about to open its first retail store in Chicago's Miracle Mile in 1998, Pleasant sold the company to Mattel for $700 million. She became vice-chairman of Mattel. Two years later in 2000, Pleasant Rowland retired from Mattel and American Girl. Ellen L. Brothers became president of American Girl, vice-president of Mattel, and a member of Mattel's management committee. The following year, American Girl introduced the Girl of the Year® characters, modern-day characters with a diverse range of personalities and backgrounds. Each year's 18” doll is available for that year only with storybooks, outfits, and accessories.

In 2004, the company changed its name to American Girl and remained headquartered in Middleton. The company continued to build their direct marketing, book publishing, and retail business. In 2012, Ellen Brothers announced her retirement from American Girl. Jean McKenzie, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Mattel, succeeded Brothers as Executive Vice President of American Girl on September 1, 2012.14

In addition to their award-winning products, American Girl is active in charitable efforts through their Shine On Now program, which supports important causes, such as Save the Children, K.I.D.S. (Kids in Distressed Situations), and Children’s Hospital Association (formerly National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions (NACHRI)).15

  • 1. “Helping girls become their very best.” American Girl. < > 11 July 2012.
  • 2. “American Girl magazine.” American Girl. < > 11 July 2012.
  • 3. “A history of helping girls shine.” American Girl. < > 11 July 2012.
  • 4. “American Girl Dolls Buying Guide.” eBay Guides. < > 25 July 2012.
  • 5. Op.cit., “American Girl Dolls Buying Guide.”
  • 6. Op.cit., “Pleasant Company – Company Profile.”
  • 7. “American Girl Characters.” American Girl. < > 11 July 2012.
  • 8. Op.cit., “Pleasant Company – Company Profile.”
  • 9. “American Girl Dolls Wiki.” Wikia. < > 27 July 2012.
  • 10. Op.cit., “Pleasant Company – Company Profile.”
  • 11. “My American Girl dolls.” American Girl. < > 11 July 2012.
  • 12. “Bitty Baby.” American Girl. < > 11 July 2012.
  • 13. Op.cit., “American Girl Dolls Buying Guide.”
  • 14. Parks, Julie. Personal correspondence to Playground Professionals. 24 Sep. 2012.
  • 15. “Shine On Now.” American Girl. < > 11 July 2012.