How the American Girl toy empire has changed over time, from its iconic historical characters to dolls with modern stories

  • American Girl was founded in 1986 by Pleasant Rowland, a retired teacher and writer.
  • The doll company went from a catalog-only brand to an empire that includes retail stores with cafes and doll hospitals, a magazine, books, and a social media presence.
  • Today, many of American Girl's 18-inch-tall dolls start at $98, and some of them can be made-to-order with custom hair types and skin tones.
  • In recent years, the brand has focused on dolls with contemporary stories, such as the character Joss Kendrick, who comes with a hearing aid; as well as its latest historical character, whose story is set in the 1980s.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly.

To some, those might just be a random assortment of girls' names — but to past and present owners of American Girl dolls, Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly are household names in their own right.

The three characters were American Girl's first 18-inch dolls, which were introduced in 1986.

Today, some American Girl dolls have stories set in centuries past, while other characters are rooted in modern-day society — representing various walks of life, all through the lens of girlhood.  

Insider spoke with the brand's president, Jamie Cygielman, to find out how American Girl is continuing to capture the attention of kids in a changing and increasingly digital and socially conscious world. Keep reading to see where the doll empire started in the 1980s and how it's changed through the years.

The story of American Girl started in 1986 with Pleasant Rowland, a writer and retired teacher from Chicago with a brilliant idea.

According to USA Today, the idea behind the toy empire is credited to Pleasant Rowland, a writer and retired teacher from Chicago.

Rowland found inspiration to create educational dolls with historic backstories after a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The Pleasant Company in Middleton, Wisconsin, manufactured American Girl dolls starting in 1986, and in 1998, the company was purchased by Mattel Inc., which also owns Barbie and Fisher-Price.

The brand first launched Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly, which were part of its flagship historical line of dolls that came with books telling each girl's story.

American Girl's website says its historical dolls "teach girls ages 8 and up important lessons about our country's history and the role of women and girls in shaping our country."

The first three dolls were Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly, who had unique stories of their own:

  • Kirsten Larson and her family are pioneers living in Minnesota in 1854.
  • Samantha Parkington is an orphan living in New York City during the early 1900s.
  • Molly's story is set in 1944, and her dad is a soldier in World War II.

Samantha dolls can be ordered through American Girl's website for $98 at the time of writing, but Kirsten and Molly were archived in 2010 and 2014, respectively, which means they're no longer available through the doll manufacturer. Original versions of Kirsten and Molly dolls can be worth hundreds of dollars on eBay.

In 1986, an 18-inch-tall American Girl doll was $68 with a paperback book and $75 with a hardcover book.

Today, 18-inch American Girl dolls in the brand's historical characters collection retail for $98.

American Girl expanded its collection of historical dolls over time, adding characters from different eras and walks of life.

There are currently 11 historical American Girl characters available for purchase for $98 each: Addy, Felicity, Josefina, Julie, Kaya, Kit, Maryellen, Melody, Nanea, Rebecca, and Samantha.

Melody Ellison, whose story takes place in Detroit in 1964, was introduced to the collection in 2016.

Melody is the brand's second black doll to be included in its historical collection, with Addy Walker being the first.

Another historical character is Rebecca Rubin, a first-generation American Jew whose family immigrated to New York City from Russia …

Rebecca was added to the historical collection in 2009.

… as well as Julie Albright, who grew up in San Francisco in the 1970s.

The doll arrives wearing bell-bottoms, a peace-sign T-shirt, and a very 1970s-esque vest.

In the early 1990s, American Girl expanded its line of products to cater to a younger audience with its Bitty Baby dolls.

The Bitty Baby dolls, first named the New Baby Collection, are meant for ages 3 and up and cost $60.

American Girl President Jamie Cygielman called the Bitty Baby dolls the brand's youngest child offering.

"It's typically for a 2-to-4-year-old girl, and she's emulating what she sees, which is typically nurturing play," Cygielman said. 

In 1995, the brand launched its "Today" collection, which let girls find a doll that had their same hair, eyes, and skin tone.

The "Today" collection was American Girl's first step toward making dolls visually customizable.

Originally, the only way to purchase American Girl dolls was through the catalog, which included a mail-in order form.

A doll vlogger YouTube channel, FiveDollStars, shared a video flipping through a 1999 American Girl catalog. 

That changed in 1998 when the first American Girl Place opened in Chicago.

It was also Rowland who thought of the idea to open a dedicated American Girl store that lets girls and families spend time together with their dolls.

Today, there are currently 18 American Girl stores in the US, as well as two in Canada and two in the United Arab Emirates. Chicago and New York City are home to American Girl Place flagship locations.

At the American Girl Place — the brand's flagship stores located in Chicago and New York City — doll owners can have their beloved toy's hair styled …

Dolls get the ultimate beauty treatment with aprons, miniature hair tools and accessories, and perfectly sized salon chairs.

… while they browse the store, looking for a new outfit to add to their American Girl collection.

Shoppers could easily spend hours browsing the elaborate displays found at American Girl Place.

American Girl stores in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles once included theaters for doll-themed musical performances.

The musical theater component of the American Girl stores was shut down in 2008, according to the Chicago Tribune.

At the end of a long shopping day, families and dolls can enjoy a meal together at the American Girl Cafe, which has miniature chairs and utensils.

American Girl Place in Chicago was one of the first of its kind to combine retail with other experiences, like a cafe, featuring miniature cups and toy food for the dolls.

Dolls can also be repaired and "treated" at wellness centers located at the American Girl Place flagships in New York City and Chicago.

At the wellness centers, dolls are dressed in hospital gowns and wristbands, and toy owners can view x-rays, eye charts, and other miniature medical equipment that add to the doll hospital experience.

"Kids are familiar with going to the doctor and having wellness visits, so now girls can bring in their doll and she can get her eyes checked and you can buy eyeglasses, or she can go to the x-ray machine and see her funny bone," Cygielman said.  

Every American Girl retail store has a doll hospital where customers can bring their dolls for repairs, but the wellness center is an exclusive feature that was added to the American Girl Place flagships in October 2019.  

In addition to its unique retail experiences, American Girl is also known for its nonfiction books, many of which tackle coming-of-age topics.

"Once girls are starting to age up — beyond the books that come with many of our dolls — they are still interested in our stories," Cygielman said. "That's where our nonfiction series comes into play."

She described the brand's "Smart Girls Guide" book series as being filled with "tween-girl life hacks."

"It's 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," she added.

Among American Girls' notable books include the best-selling "The Care & Keeping of You," which now has a version geared toward a male audience. The brand also released a book dedicated to tackling anxiety, which Cygielman said is wildly popular.

"Kids have anxiety, and it's something that's pervasive in society," Cygielman said. "I think that parents and caregivers look to us as a trusted resource to help their girls through some of this stuff."

American Girl started placing an emphasis on contemporary, diverse stories with its "Girl of the Year" campaign, which launched in 2001.

The "Girl of the Year" collection includes an exclusive character that's launched once a year, and it's a big part of the brand's shift to tell contemporary stories that modern girls connect with, Cygielman said.

"We see the line as an opportunity for girls to see themselves in that character and also to help them create a broader worldview," Cygielman said.

The "Girl of the Year" dolls serve as either "mirrors" or "windows" for modern girls, Cygielman explained — meaning girls can see themselves in the contemporary dolls, or they can understand another's culture or perspective.

"The characters are either a mirror to a girl, where she can see part of herself, or they're a window into another culture or someone else's perspective," Cygielman said.

For example, in 2017, the "Girl of the Year" was Gabriela McBride, who's described as a girl who used dance and poetry to overcome a speech disorder. Gabriela's story included how she saved her local community arts center from destruction by embracing her passions for poetry and dance.

Most recently, American Girl launched its 2020 "Girl of the Year," Joss Kendrick, a surfer, cheerleader, and environmental activist who wears a hearing aid.

The 2020 "Girl of the Year" is an example of how American Girl is continuing to make its dolls reflect a variety of abilities. Joss Kendrick was born deaf in one ear, and the doll comes with a hearing aid device. 

In a similar vein, American Girl also sells accessories that cater to a variety of abilities and needs — including doll wheelchairs and diabetes care kits.

American Girl has also developed a strong online presence, creating live-action "vlogs" on YouTube.

Since American Girl considers anything that takes up kids' leisure time as competition, crafting an engaging digital presence has been an important part of the brand's sustainability.

That's why the doll company introduced characters like Suzie "Z" Yang, an aspiring filmmaker who hosted her own videos on the brand's YouTube channel.

American Girl hosts a slew of other series — including cooking tutorials and DIY, or "do it yourself," videos where viewers can learn how to make crafts and costumes for their dolls. 

In 2020, the brand launched its first historical character in three years: Courtney Moore, whose story is set in 1986.

Courtney Moore is described by American Girl as "a total '80s girl whose big, bright, and bold ideas inspire today's girls to find their inner hero to accomplish great things," according to a press release obtained by Insider.

The historical doll's story also represents a full-circle moment for the brand, as Courtney grows up in 1986, the year American Girl launched its first dolls.  

The doll not only has '80s style — like neon outfits and scrunchies — but her story reflects the events of the decade, including "major historical moments surrounding women in government and space exploration, as well as larger cultural shifts around blended families and emerging technology," according to the brand's press release.

American Girl also teamed up with the band The Go-Go's to produce a music video for Courtney — a nod to the groundbreaking music videos that were first aired on MTV in 1981.

The Courtney Moore doll and book retail for $110 at the time of writing.

Fans of the dolls can also customize their own "Truly Me" doll to look like them.

The 18-inch-tall "Truly Me" girl dolls are $98, and they come wearing a dress, a bright blue motorcycle jacket that zips, and glittery ballet flats.

The "Truly Me" boy dolls are the same price. They include a striped polo shirt and pants, plus the same "Friends: Making Them & Keeping Them" book that's included with the girl dolls.

One glance at the "Truly Me" accessories — a tiny card-holder, play cash, and a miniature cell phone with interchangeable screen-savers — shows how the decades-old doll brand has changed with the times.

It's $30 to add the elaborate accessory kit to any "Truly Me" doll.

American Girl also has a line geared toward younger users, "WellieWishers," which includes five dolls that are smaller in height than the traditional American Girl dolls.

American Girl's "WellieWishers" have stories and outfits centered around animals and princesses and are geared toward 5- through 7-year-olds. They retail for $60 each. 

"These are for a girl who is just getting into school and getting into more of this larger community where her life doesn't just revolve around her, but now revolves around others," Cygielman said. "The five characters make up a team that teaches girls empathy, kindness, and the importance of being a good friend."

Here, the character Camille is described as a girl who "adores the ocean" and is as "mellow as a mermaid."

For $200, prospective American Girl doll-owners can completely customize their mini-me.

Shoppers who go for the customizable option can hand-pick their doll's outfits, accessories, facial features, hair, and even "personality" (which includes their name and favorite places, hobbies, and pet).

The president of American Girl said she believes that as long as the brand continues to follow girls' "rites of passages" and tell compelling stories, it will succeed — even in the digital era.

"At the original inception of the brand, the stories were set in historical periods within American history," Cygielman said. "But what always prevailed were these rites of passage of girlhood, which remained pretty much the same, whether it was 200 years ago or it's today."

These rites of passages, she explained, are things that girls find important: friendships, family relationships, overcoming obstacles, and making a difference in the world.

"Whether it's social injustices or school bullying, whatever the topic is, those are all very near and dear to girls' hearts, and they have been rites of passage to girlhood for over 200 years," Cygielman said.

"We have an opportunity to keep telling these contemporary stories and to let girls feel like they are a part of that story as well."

Source: Read Full Article