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Being a nine-year-old girl is a very specific thing. You daydream a lot. You play. You aren't a little kid, but you aren't not. You think about friendship. You think about what you like to do and who you are and maybe worry a little bit about what that means to other people. You gain independence, bit by bit. You start being you in a realer way than ever before. Being a nine-year-old girl is very special.
And if you were a nine-year-old girl at any point during the last 30 years, you are almost certainly familiar with American Girl. It very well may have been an essential part of your nine-year-old girldom. From the beginning, from the time it was a mere kernel of an idea scrawled on a postcard, American Girl was engineered for nine-year-old girls.
It all began when Pleasant Rowland, who was working for an educational publishing company at the time, took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. Rowland had had a varied career; she'd been an elementary school teacher, a TV news reporter, a textbook writer. History and education were her passions, and while she was in Virginia, inspiration struck.
She sent a postcard detailing her plan to her friend Valerie Tripp, a children's author. As she recalled at American Girl's 25th anniversary celebration, it went something like this: "I've been down in Williamsburg this week and had an idea. What do you think of it? A series of books about nine-year-old girls growing up at different times in American history."
"There would be six books for each and the stories would reflect the important moments of girlhood, and how it changed and how it stayed the same over the years," she continued. "There would be a doll for each character with historically accurate clothes and accessories so girls could play out the stories. There might even be matching clothes for the girls."
The goal was to make history personal and also to fill a gap in the market: there were baby dolls and Barbie dolls, but no dolls designed to be the age of girls who were actually playing with them. When Rowland began telling people about her idea she was "met with disbelief and patronizing tolerance, summarized as, 'Are you kidding? Historical dolls in the day and age of Barbie?'"
"The stories would reflect the important moments of girlhood, and how it changed and how it stayed the same over the years."
Though Tripp was initially skeptical too, she quickly got on board. She and Rowland conceptualized the first three characters: Molly McIntire, Samantha Parkington, and Kirsten Larson. Each lived in a different era, with patriotic Molly growing up during World War II, wealthy Samantha right after the Victorian age, and immigrant Kirsten in the middle of the 19th century.
These period choices were deliberate. For example, as Tripp explains, "We knew that we wanted Samantha to have lived at the turn of the last century because we felt that that was an enormous turning point for women." Tripp would go on to write the books for Samantha and Molly, as well as Felicity Merriman, Josefina Montoya, and Kit Kittredge.
Using money saved from textbook royalties, Rowland started The Pleasant Company. She brought Molly, Samantha, and Kirsten to life, launching the American Girl brand in September 1986 by mailing 500,000 catalogs to girls across the country. This was by means of necessity: she had met with toy and department store buyers who told her the 18-inch dolls (originally priced at $82) were too expensive to stock. She would have to sell them herself.
By Christmas, the company had sales of over $1 million. American Girl was something nine-year-old girls wanted, maybe even needed.
"From its inception, it was a doll company, a toy company, a clothing company, a publishing company, and a direct mail company all at once," Rowland told the 25th anniversary crowd. "But in truth, from its beginning vision, it was a company that was bigger than the sum of all those parts. It was a girl company, and anything that was good for girls, was ours to give them."
Rowland's vision was a complete one. She always knew she wanted a store—a big, amazing store—to sell her dolls. It wasn't until 1998, the same year Rowland sold The Pleasant Company to Mattel for $700 million, that this part of her dream was realized. (The famously press-shy Rowland declined to be interviewed for this story.)
"Everything is 38 inches high. That is the average height of a nine-year-old girl."
The brand's first flagship, known as American Girl Place, opened in downtown Chicago; the location was chosen because of its proximity to American Girl headquarters in Middleton, Wisconsin. There are now flagships in New York and Los Angeles, as well as smaller American Girl stores across the country. The stores are one of the most important aspects of the brand. Visit one and you instantly understand what American Girl is. It is not a stretch to say the company helped pioneer the experiential retail experience.
New York City's American Girl Place inhabits a 42,000-square-foot, three-floor space on Fifth Avenue. It is, of course, a tribute to girldom, as all American Girl stores are. Girls go there with their moms, grandmas, and aunts. Everyone, without fail, leaves with at least one deep red ("berry," in American Girl parlance) shopping bag. Everyone.
"It's magic!" a girl exclaims to her godmother one spring afternoon. Her eyes are wide, her mouth fixed into a huge grin. Minutes later, a manager offers up a recent favorite moment: "A girl came in and asked me, ‘Who created this? Was it god?'"
The closest thing American Girl stores have to a supreme creator is Wade Opland, the brand's senior vice president of global retail. He has been with American Girl for a decade. When he joined the company, it had two stores; in May, it opened its 19th. Opland is a tall, towering figure who wears black suits and no tie. He has an easy smile and makes meaningful eye contact. He has very shiny shoes.
"Everything is 38 inches high," he explains. "That is the average height of a nine-year-old girl. This is for her."
On the first floor of the NYC flagship is the bookstore, with both the historical novels American Girl is known for, as well as what the company calls its "advice library," which is filled with titles that run the gamut from The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls to A Smart Girl's Guide to Money. There are activity kits and books for younger children, DVDs and a few copies of American Girl Magazine, which launched in 1992 and has more than 400,000 monthly subscribers.
The first floor is also home to the Truly Me range, which was introduced in 1995 and known throughout the years as American Girl Today, Just Like You, and My American Girl. These dolls (which cost $115, like all of the full-sized dolls do now) are one step short of fully customizable, with 40 different combinations of skin color, eye color, and hair color and texture available. You can even special-order a doll without any hair at all. There are different face molds so some dolls read as more authentically black or Asian, though the company is careful to never assign any specific race to any particular doll. There are seemingly innumerable outfit options.
Truly Me grew out of customer demand for a contemporary alternative to Samantha, Molly, and the rest of the historical girls. It has allowed the brand to be both more nimble (it's constantly updating its offerings) and more inclusive. You can buy your doll orthodontic headgear; there are allergy bracelets and EpiPens, wheelchairs and service dogs. Anything that may make a girl different is treated as entirely standard here. There's fun stuff, too: nail polish stickers, karate uniforms, beach hammocks. There is a whole collection of miniature pets. These aren't dolls that come with prewritten stories, these are dolls you construct your own stories for.
"Sport stories, music stories—whatever her passion is, she can share it with her doll and that is really important," Opland says of the merchandising vignettes that exemplify the company ethos of imaginative play. "Because not all girls are dance girls! There are a lot of girls who love horses or love surfing. We talk to girls all the time, so we know what is important to them and what kind of issues they are dealing with, and we incorporate them into our stories."
In-store encounters allow American Girl to mine its customers for information, but online focus groups inform the company's moves too. It also helps that 80 percent of the employees at American Girl HQ are women who were once nine-year-old girls themselves.
"We talk to girls all the time, so we know what is important to them and what kind of issues they are dealing with."
The next floor up houses BeForever, which is what American Girl calls its historical doll and book range following a 2014 rebranding. When the line relaunched last year, emphasis was placed on the "dreams of the characters," according to director of content Jodi Goldberg. Instead of six books per doll, there are now two larger volumes, and the company has introduced the Journey series, in which modern-day girls time-travel back to BeForever eras.
The rebrand also called for a facelift of the doll clothes and accessories, which were subsequently brightened and updated, and to the clothes customers could buy for themselves. Instead of identical replicas of the dolls' outfits, a more modern solution was found. "We didn't want her wearing a costume," says project designer Shelley Cornia, "so we decided to make girls' apparel that's inspired by the characters."
While it's perhaps not the largest part of the business anymore—all signs point to Truly Me's dominance, though American Girl would not confirm this—BeForever still clearly remains the brand's centerpiece. The BeForever section of the store is where you remember this is a brand of stories and a store of experiences. Each character is sold next to a large shadow box display that has a mirror (so you can "see" yourself in the characters) and an iPad loaded with quizzes about each doll's time in history. For Josefina, a Hispanic girl living in New Mexico in 1824, you can push buttons that allow you to smell sagebrush, mountain marigold, rosemary, and desert oregano. For Rebecca Rubin, a Jewish girl from 1914 who dreams of being an actress, there's a small stage.
The company is meticulous when it comes to product development, particularly for the BeForever line. "It takes about three years to launch a new character because you do a lot of research," explains Opland. The BeForever books tackle a range of difficult issues—Addy Walker is an escaped slave, Samantha speaks out against child labor—and so American Girl enlists historians, museum curators, and linguists to carefully craft each character's narrative. Research trips are taken (to Santa Fe for Josefina, New York's Lower East Side for Rebecca) and advisory committees are formed.
In the case of Kaya, a nine-year-old Native American girl in the Northwest, American Girl worked with the Nez Perce tribe to ensure that her story, as well as her appearance, were as authentic as possible. As a result, she's the only American Girl doll without her two front teeth showing; the tribe explained that Kaya would have never shown her teeth like that, as it's considered a sign of aggression in the Nez Perce culture. They ensured that everything from the positioning of her braids to the patterns on her "pow-wow outfit" were historically accurate. A visit to the Rocky Mountains' Lolo Trail also contributed to the development process.
American Girl enlists historians, museum curators, and linguists to carefully craft each character's narrative.
Julie Albright and Samantha are the favorites when it comes to the BeForever line. Julie is the top blonde doll; she grew up in the 1970s and girls are drawn to her long, straight hair, while moms relate to having come of age in the same decade. You can buy Julie a $350 car wash set (Volkswagen Beetle included) and a $100 orange egg chair and ottoman. Samantha, the top brunette, was archived (the company's term for "retire for an indefinite period of time") in 2009, but reintroduced last fall.
Caroline Abbott, whose father was captured by British soldiers during the War of 1812, is in the process of being archived; she has only been in stores since 2012. She will be replaced this fall with Maryellen Larkin, a girl from the 1950s whose books will be written by Valerie Tripp, much to the delight of hardcore American Girl fans. Some see this as a way to tap into what made Julie so successful: like Julie, Maryellen has long fair hair and comes from the not-too-distant past.
Across the floor from BeForever is the Girl of the Year shop. The Girl of the Year program debuted in 2001, and is another line that feeds the desire for contemporary dolls. Each limited-edition doll comes with her own modern-day story and all of the requisite merchandise—books, clothes, accessories. This year's Girl of the Year is Grace Thomas, a nine-year-old with a passion for baking that is ignited by a family trip to Paris; her collection includes a $500 patisserie. Grace's straight-to-DVD movie—complete with MasterChef Junior tie-in—came out last week.
Adjacent to Grace is what to many is the main event: the hair salon, where dolls sit in tiny hot pink chairs to get their hair done (there's a whole menu of styles, including basket-weave braids and double-decker ponytails), ears pierced, or face pampered by way of cucumber slice stickers, with services ranging from $5 to $25. You can buy clip-in braids and ponytails here, and it's also where you can get your doll a hearing aid. A team of expert hairdressers ask girls about their day and give them advice for how to care for their doll; Opland calls this a "girl-doll moment."
Around the way is the doll hospital, where, it's explained, "there is always a doctor on duty." Today Dr. Carmen is seeing patients. She wears a white lab coat and helps facilitate transfers to the company base in Middleton, where repairs are made. Dr. Carmen reassures the girls their dolls will be taken care of and sent back soon.
You can buy clip-in braids and ponytails here, and it's also where you can get your doll a hearing aid.
There is more. So much more. American Girl didn't pull in $620 million in sales last year by not having more. There's a station to make customized T-shirts. There's an area devoted to New York City-specific merchandise. There's a section for Bitty Baby, American Girl's baby dolls for girls ages three to six.
And then there is the cafe. The line for the American Girl Cafe cuts through the Bitty Baby area as a hundred people wait to get in for tea time. Enter and you are offered a pink chair for the doll you presumably have brought; after all, the company has sold 27 million dolls over the years. (For the record, it has also sold 151 million books.) But if you are one of the few doll-less souls, you can borrow one for the meal.
Everything in the cafe is coordinated. Pink bow hair ties stand in for napkin rings. There is black-and-white striped wallpaper and light fixtures covered in pink flowers. Waiters wear crisp white button-downs, black neckties with white polka dots, and pink aprons. Girls are given pink paper crowns and dolls are given white teacups printed with a pink flower. Boxes of conversation cards are found on each table: What is the best class you've ever taken? Should boys be allowed to play on girls' sports teams? Why? Would you rather take a long, hot shower or soak in a bubble bath? You can decorate little cardboard bags for your dolls with stickers.
The food—save for the cinnamon rolls that are served as an appetizer—is largely terrible, but the food is not the point. (Of course, the food is on-brand, at least nominally, with "Samantha's cream cheese and jelly tea sandwich" and "Rebecca's mini basil-spinach frittata.") This is a place for celebrating.
The unofficial theme song of the cafe is undoubtedly "Happy Birthday," which is sung on never-ending loop from table to table. Today, Samantha Santos is celebrating her 10th birthday with her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, godmother, aunt, cousin, and two friends, all of whom drove in from New Jersey for the occasion. They've also brought a cake.
The unofficial theme song of the cafe is undoubtedly "Happy Birthday," which is sung on never-ending loop from table to table.
Jessica Lydon is an eight-year-old from Pennsylvania visiting with her mom and grandparents. They are here for two occasions: Jessica's first holy communion (they are having tea before going to mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral down the block) and an early Mother's Day celebration. This is Jessica's first time at the store, and she's brought her doll Isabelle (last year's Girl of the Year, a dancer with pink-tipped hair) along; her Truly Me doll, which she named Roxie, is back at home, along with Grace.
She recently had to send Isabelle to the doll hospital because her "brother cut the string that held her head on." Today she's bought mini-dolls—at American Girl, you can buy dolls their own dolls for $25—of Kaya and Julie, a dog she named Jen, clothes, and some books. Her mom makes sure she mentions the books. When Jessica's asked what she did in the store today, she blurts out, "Everything!"
"We learned early on that the customer wants to see, touch, feel, and experience the product. Not every girl is going to go to Chicago, New York, LA"—where American Girl's flagships are—"so we opened our first non-flagship store in 2007 in Atlanta. It was wildly successful, and we learned very quickly that there was definitely a demand and a need greater than we thought."
This is how Opland explains American Girl's big bet on national expansion while surveying the company's newest outpost in late May. Even though the Nashville store has been in soft open mode for the last few days, Opland and his team are anticipating tomorrow's grand opening to be huge.
The store is located in the CoolSprings Galleria, a mall in the upscale suburb of Franklin. It has a Cheesecake Factory and an Apple store and a Macy's. It has imitation marble floors. It has teen couples that hold hands as they walk towards the food court. A Lincoln compact SUV is parked inside the mall for customers to gawk at as they exit a Victoria's Secret.
"Some people will say, ‘You are a luxury brand!'" says Opland. "No, we are not a luxury brand, we are not in luxury malls. We are in places where mom shops, where mom wants to come, where it is easy to get in and out."
"We are not a luxury brand, we are not in luxury malls. We are in places where mom shops, where mom wants to come."
The 8,500-square-foot store is a pocket-sized version of the flagships, with about 80 percent of the merchandise options. The largest amount of real estate is given to Truly Me, and one of the glass box displays showcases a Nashville-appropriate doll holding a guitar while wearing Western plaid and cowboy boots.
The store is bustling, even though it hasn't officially opened; the American Girl Bistro, a smaller-scale restaurant concept, is booked three months out. Excited girls populate the store while their brothers, dragged along for this midday mall excursion, are left to temporarily fend for themselves. One boy has hidden himself on a low shelf with his new Lego set while his older sister shops with their mom. "You can get a sleeping bag for you and your doll!" exclaims a dad. "It's expensive," his daughter replies shyly. "I bet it is," he tells her. "What in here isn't?"
"Through a lot of research, we have found that girl-brand affinity increases even more when they visit the store," Opland continues. "You can have a birthday party here, you can bring mom, dad, grandparents —it is a multi-generational shopping experience. The girl spends 1.5 hours in our store on average, versus the industry average of 20 minutes."
It's estimated that half a million people will visit American Girl Nashville each year; flagships like the one in New York City will see two million people annually. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is peak season, when girls wait in line to get into stores and then wait once more to get their doll's hair done at the salon. School breaks flood stores too.
"We can tell we had a busy day," Opland says, "when there are nose prints on the windows."
It's 8 a.m. on Saturday morning and nearly 1,800 people have gathered for the Nashville grand opening. Six thousand will come through by the end of the day. The first girl arrived at 10:30 the night before, camping outside with her family for several humid hours. She doesn't know it yet, but this will earn her a free doll of her choosing and the opportunity to help cut the ribbon.
"We get to create magic—this is gonna be the fun part, guys—we get to create magical memories and lasting moments in little girls' lives."
For the opening, American Girl has named Maddie Wright, a seven-year-old with cystic fibrosis, its child ambassador through the help of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University. Maddie has come to the store carrying Grace, and they both wear matching fascinators. A few minutes before the ribbon cutting, Maddie and the staff gather in a circle to get pumped up by store manager Emily Van Winkle.
"We get to create magic—this is gonna be the fun part, guys—we get to create magical memories and lasting moments in little girls' lives," Emily says. "We get to introduce them to their new best friend, we get to help pick out new outfits and accessories. We have the pleasure to hear about her week, and what happened at school, and what she plans to do this summer and who she wants to be when she grows up, and who else knows what. I want each of you to realize what a huge honor it is to have this opportunity to make every girls' visit with us special." She says they're "destined to be American Girl employees."
Maddie is given the floor and she explains how important the children's hospital is to her. Tears are streaming down everyone's faces, so Maddie looks at her mom, Leanne. "I'm not crying!" Leanne protests. Opland tells the group that an event held at the store the night before raised $11,000 for the hospital. He's here to inspire the group too: "My goal is for this to be your best day ever! You, you, all of you, are super powerful!"
Everyone puts their hands in the center of the circle—"1, 2, 3...Music City Magic Makers!"—and then Maddie and Sara, the girl who arrived at 10:30 last night, cut the ribbon with kid-sized pink scissors. Opland stations himself at the store entrance for the rest of the day, handing out A Smart Girl's Guide to Style to everyone who comes through the doors.
The mall belongs to girls today, at least for a few hours—girls like Breana Greenwood and Reina Draper, 10-year-old best friends from Kentucky. Reina's purple T-shirt reads "Jesus Is My BFF" in rainbow lettering that matches her multicolored sneakers. She takes a collector's approach to American Girl. She owns a retired Truly Me doll—"It's number 32!" she says, referring to the style number—that she's put in a Frozen dress she bought on eBay. Today she plans to get Caroline before she's archived.
"It just looked so pretty and the quality was really good, so I decided to try to buy one and saved up my money."
Reina's introduction to American Girl, however, is on the cutting edge of the brand. "First I saw an ad on TV and then I searched for American Girl on YouTube, and I found this user called Basilmentos," she says. "She made a ton of these things called stop-motions, and I watched them and became totally obsessed."
The American Girl Stop-Motion, or AGSM, community on YouTube takes the American Girl notion of imaginative play and turns it up to 11. There are tens of thousands of videos that use the animation technique to make jaw-droppingly impressive short films and music videos. It's hard not to fall down the stop-motion doll rabbit hole. For many of the girls who create these clips, AGSM is a way to engage with the brand after they would have otherwise outgrown it. It's not nine-year-old girls making these videos, but rather older teens.
Breana is more serious than Reina, with glasses and curly hair that's pulled back with a headband. She became acquainted with American Girl when a classmate brought her doll to school: "It just looked so pretty and the quality was really good, so I decided to try to buy one and saved up my money." Her allowance funded the purchase of Rebecca.
Quality is something that is brought up again and again, both by American Girl employees and customers.
"We want to be where the girls are, but we also want to make sure that mom and dad see a very good value," says Opland. "For $115 doll, a lot of people say, ‘Wow, that is a lot of money.' Well, not if you really look at the quality of it, how long it lasts, and the play value along with it. You can see the quality of our merchandise. There is metal. You are not going to see a lot of plastic. She is going to love her doll, it is going to become a keepsake."
Lauren Mays, an 11-year-old from Nashville, echoes the sentiment as only an 11-year-old can: "They are really fun and can handle a lot of activities!"
Back at the store, the hair salon is, naturally, crazed. A store associate calls it "controlled chaos." A girl with a head full of braids is getting her Truly Me doll's hair braided just like hers; her mom has braids too. A security guard turns to a dad to thank him for "starting the ear piercing line."
Among the girls standing in line is nine-year-old Shelby Smith. She's brought along Kaya and Molly, who was archived in 2013. "I got her because she was one of the real dolls," she says of Molly. "And I got Kaya because I like Indian stuff. I take them everywhere I can!" She's also brought Molly's friend, Emily. American Girl used to carry friend dolls for its historical characters; their archiving drew criticism due to a black doll and the brand's only Asian historical doll being among the discontinued.
Behind Shelby, Katie Lovelace is looking for a Truly Me doll, carefully inspecting the cases to find her perfect match. She settles on number 25, a doll with light skin, layered black-brown hair, and brown eyes. She plans to get her glasses like hers too. "I wanted a doll that looked like me because I started getting the catalogs!" The catalogs are still an entry point for many customers, even though the bulk of actual sales come from in-store and online purchases.
And as American Girl nears its 30th year, its original catalog customers are beginning to have nine-year-old girls of their own. Genee McRath, 34, was part of that first generation of American Girl fans. Her mother bought her Addy when she debuted in 1993; now she's buying her seven-year-old daughter Cade Clark her very first doll. They showed up at 3 a.m. to get in line.
"I remember the company being very traditional and having something that was for every girl," says McRath. "It's nice to see it now and how it has expanded over time. They have girls that look like every girl you can possibly imagine. No one is left out—no race, no demographic. It appeals to everyone and that's something that we don't have much of today. For this to be able to appeal to each and every girl is pretty awesome."
"The stories of the American Girls' lives—simple on the surface, but rich and rewarding in their emotional truth—are what will stick in years to come."
In August, American Girl will open its 20th store in Scottsdale, Arizona, and by the end of the year, it will have six dedicated mini-shops in Canada and two in Mexico City. "Maybe someday there will be a global girl, history from around the world," says Opland. "A lot of our characters do travel in our stories, and that is part of the world being more global today than it was in 1986."
The brand looks very different than it did in 1986, but also very much the same. Even though it's now owned by Mattel, American Girl, for all intents and purposes, is left to do its own thing. It is still headquartered in suburban Wisconsin, 2,000 miles away from Mattel's Los Angeles campus. The relationship can best be described as symbiotic. American Girl has advised Mattel brands Barbie, Fisher-Price, and Hot Wheels on experiential retail and direct marketing; Mattel has helped American Girl get into the entertainment space.
Though Rowland retired in 2000, her vision has continued to guide the company. "The stories of the American Girls' lives—simple on the surface, but rich and rewarding in their emotional truth—are what will stick in years to come," she said on the brand's 25th anniversary.
She knew that nine-year-old girls were important. She knew they were curious and passionate and kind. She knew they wanted, perhaps needed, a place to call their own: an American Girl Place.
"We know that what we are doing is for a higher power," says Opland, gazing out onto the Nashville store. "We are not about just selling. We are about creating girls with stronger character, creating great products for the mental traveler, creating great stories. We are not just a toy store. This is an experience that comes from American Girl. This is a memory."
Editor: Leslie Price