Friday, September 10, 2010

The Changing Face of American Girl Dolls

When I was a little girl, the doll of my dreams was made by Madame Alexander.   They were beautiful and very sought after and her dolls from the 40's and 50's have become collector's items.  Madame Alexander doll possesses a timeless charm that only grows stronger as time passes.  I was lucky enough to own 2 of these dolls from the 1950's.  

However, following her 90th birthday in 1985, Madame began to take on an advisory role in the company, officially retiring in 1988.  Madame Beatrice Alexander Berhman passed away at the age of 95.   Then, the Kaizen Breakthrough Partnership LP, a private capital fund managed by Gefinor, an international banking group, acquired The Alexander Doll Company in 1995.   They say that Madame Alexander's original vision is upheld today in the Alexander Doll Company's full line of collectible dolls, baby dolls and play dolls that incorporate her standards of quality with contemporary characters and modern materials.  But I wonder if these dolls will ever match the quality, style, design and desirability of MA dolls made before 1990.   And they certainly are not the most desired doll by girls today.

There is an obvious parallel here to the evolution of the American Girl Doll.   A quick review of the history of American Girl Dolls illustrates the similarities:  In 1986, Pleasant T. Rowland, a former educator and publisher of educational materials, founded Pleasant Company which is headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin. Pleasant Company produced and marketed three 18-inch dolls dolls each of which was from a different period in American History. Each of them had an elaborate background story which were told in several professionally-written books. The three girls, Samantha, Kirsten and Molly had a number of historically accurate outfits and accessory sets which tied into and were depicted in the various stories. The American Girl Collection was originally exclusively available only through mail-order catalogs. Over the next several years, five more historical dolls and their stories were added for a total of eight girls spanning periods in U.S. history from 1764 to 1944. All of the accessory items were imaginative, well designed and of the highest quality.  The first American Girl dolls were actually manufactured in Germany by the Goetz doll manufactures.
In the Fall of 1997, an online store was launched.  In 1998, Pleasant Company was acquired by Mattel, Inc., the world's leading toy company. Pleasant Rowland took a seat on the Mattel Board as an acting VP for two years.  Then Ms. Rowland retired from Pleasant Company in 2000.  American Girl became the main trademark name for the company.  The Pleasant Company logo pretty much vanished, and heavy retirements begin from the historical doll line. .  (For a detailed year-by-year history of the American Girl Dolls visit American Girl Playthings). 

Many, many changes have been made to American Girl over the last 10 years.  Although two new historical dolls (Julie and Rebecca) were added to the line, the loss of the dolls representing earlier historical times indicated a more disturbing trend for the American Girl Doll franchise.

I first noticed the change in the direction of the company as the catalogs evolved.  Earlier catelogs feature the historical dolls, with new outfits and accessories for new events in their lives.   But the later catalogs have more pages devoted to the dolls of Today and Just Like me.  

The next big change was the retirement of the Victorian era dolls, Samantha and Nellie.  (These were my peronsal favorites).   And then Kirsten, a doll representing the prairie life, was retired.  Now comes the news that the colonial doll Felicity (and her friend Elizabeth) are being retired after this holiday season.     

Today there is more and more emphasis on dolls representing current style, the stores and the services sold in the stores.  I'm sure these trends will contine because based on the American Girl Doll owners that are my friends and fans on Facebook, the new dolls, their clothes and style and the stores are a big success.   (Hopefully they will keep the soft-bodied dolls, and we won't see dolls developing the need for training bras, a la Barbie).

Why does this matter to me?   It gets back to the love of dolls and their place in a girl's development.   Every little girl loves to dress her doll and play with her.  Almost any doll can serve this need.  Barbie was so successful because finally girls that had played with paper dolls could have a three dimensional doll with all the clothes a girl wanted for her doll.   Bratz became successful because these dolls offered clothes reflecting the most current styles and fads.   But when girls reached a certain age, these dolls were by and large forgotten and probably tossed away.

I have always considered the American Girl Dolls to be very unique and special.  The original idea for the dolls, to offer a doll that more than a toy that is played with then forgotten and discarded over time, was groundbreaking.

Today, the historical American Girl Dolls are unmatched by any other dolls currently offered at this time.  While no one begrudges Mattel the expansion of the American Girl Doll line to include the stores, clothes and accessories for the dolls of today, slowly eliminating the historical dolls from this collection turns the American Girl Doll into a much more ordinary doll.   And that doll is not that different from Goetz, Springfield, Life of Faith, or even Madame Alexander's 18 inch soft-bodied doll.

Hope that doesn't happen.


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