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American Girl: From Historical To Contemporary

Credit: American Girl

At the American Girl Place flagship store in Chicago, visitors will find a bright, modern space filled with an array of interactive features. Kids can use a touchscreen to create a custom doll or outfit as well as visit the on-site salon for manicures and makeovers with their dolls. There’s a café with a menu that caters to both kids and parents, and party rooms available for private bookings (temporarily closed but scheduled to reopen when it’s safe to gather in groups). Visitors can also take their dolls to the in-store wellness center where doll “doctors” will administer repairs—reattach limbs, replace lost eyeballs—as well as brush and restyle the doll’s hair. 

The lavish in-store experience is perhaps evidence of the brand’s massive success. From its humble beginnings as a mail-order catalog business, American Girl has quietly built a retail and media empire that continues to resonate with new generations of kids. 

The secret to American Girl’s success is perhaps two-fold: on the one hand, it has a mission with heart. American Girl intends to “help girls discover their sense of self…[and] instill important values like honesty, courage, kindness, and compassion.” Helping the next generation develop a strong sense of self, especially in the midst of our increasingly challenging times, is a praiseworthy effort. The brand has evolved over the years and shown its ability to adapt to the current moment while still creating engaging stories and characters. 

KIRSTEN, MOLLY & SAMANTHA

Credit: American Girl

Founder Pleasant Rowland, a schoolteacher, reportedly came up with the idea for the original American Girl dolls after a trip to Colonial Williamsburg back in the mid-80s. The original line included three young characters from different eras: Kirsten, from a family of pioneers whose story is set in Minnesota in 1854, Samantha, an orphan in New York City in the early 1900s, and Molly from Illinois whose father is fighting in World War II. According to the American Girl website, the historical doll line “teach[es] girls ages 8 and up important lessons about our country’s history and the role of women and girls in shaping our country.” Each doll comes with a book that details the character’s backstory as well as the corresponding historical period.

Since the early days, the historical line has introduced new and more diverse characters including Kaya, from the Nez Perce indigenous tribe in the Pacific Northwest whose story takes place in 1764, Nanea, a 9-year-old Hawaiian girl living through the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Melody, an African-American girl living in Detroit in the 1960s.

Girl Of The Year

Credit: American Girl

These days American Girl isn’t just about historical characters. In 2001, the brand started their “Girl of the Year” line, introducing a new, limited-edition doll each year with a modern backstory that speaks to girlhood today—which is very different from where the company began. The Girl of the Year character is meant to “give voice to a diverse range of personalities and backgrounds” and reflect the contemporary challenges kids face.

This year’s Girl of the Year seems particularly timely and relevant: Kira Bailey is a 10-year-old from Michigan who is passionate about the environment. She’s spending the summer in Queensland, Australia, visiting her great aunts at their wildlife sanctuary where she takes care of the koalas and learns about climate change. 

American Girl general manager Jamie Cygielman said in a statement: “As we all witnessed the bushfires rage in Australia last year…and the devastating wildfires in the Western United States, we knew it was important to focus Kira’s story on the major conservation and climate challenges facing our planet today — causes that are extremely important to today’s youth. Through Kira, we hope our fans will learn that we all have a part to play in taking positive action for our planet.”

Last year’s Girl of the Year doll was Joss Kendrick, a young surfer from Southern California with hearing loss. Joss’s story marks the first time the company has introduced a character with a disability, according to Insider. Hearing loss is one of the more common physical challenges for children and teens: the CDC reports nearly 15 percent of kids between ages 6 and 19 to have some degree of hearing loss. “We hope her story will help broaden understanding and respect for people’s differences, as well as spark conversations around hearing loss,” said Susan Jevens, an associate manager of public relations for American Girl.

American Girl In The Digital Era

As kids spend more time online and on social media, American Girl has followed suit with a strong digital presence anchored by their content-rich YouTube channel with DIY tutorials, cooking videos, and more. 

The brand is also a top publisher of non-fiction, coming-of-age stories (beyond the books that tell the backstory of each doll). One book series, Smart Girls Guide, is “all about how to mind your way through the mores of older elementary school and middle school, where maybe you have some friendship woes or are finding out how to get along in this new digital world with social media and texting,” says Cygielman. 

Whether it’s introducing new characters, embracing new media channels, or developing interactive in-store features, American Girl remains committed to its mission of helping kids develop a strong sense of self. And that commitment to their roots may be what will drive the brand’s success in the years to come. 

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