When I was little my younger sister had a prized toy rabbit, Bestie (short for Best Bunny). Bestie went everywhere with her, until one awful Summer when she lost him. While my parents searched high and low for the missing rabbit, I gathered all my dolls together in our lounge. Before going to bed I arranged them around the tea table, put water in their teacups, provided a picnic of cardboard sandwiches, and whispered in each one’s ear that they must find Bestie. Such was my faith in my dolls. The next morning the sandwiches had bite marks in them, but sadly no Bestie. He did not materialize for several months, until my sister found him stuck in her coat sleeve. However, although my dolls didn’t find Bestie, my faith in make-believe did not diminish; to me the “bite marks” in the sandwiches offered irrefutable proof.
Growing up in England I had a Tiny Tears baby doll, and my older sister had a Cabbage Patch Kid. I remember Baby Borns, Baby All Gones and Baby Alives. There was no shortage of doll fads in England, but one doll never made it to the British market: the American Girl doll.
A contemporary of the Cabbage Patch Kids, American Girl dolls first launched in 1986. The dolls were designed by a textbook writer, Pleasant Rowland, who realized that toy manufactures only made baby or teenage Barbie dolls. Rowland set up a mail order company selling dolls of a similar age to their future owners. Each doll represented a distinct historical time period, and Rowland hoped to teach young girls about American history through play. Kirsten was a pioneer girl, Samantha was an Edwardian, and Molly McIntire lived through World War Two. Each doll’s story was one of courage, of overcoming struggle and finding inner strength. The dolls were immensely popular, in part thanks to the variety of historically themed accessories and clothes available for additional purchase.
In 1998 Pleasant Rowland sold her company to Mattel, and in the same year the first American Girl Place shop opened in Chicago. I was first introduced to American Girl when I went to American Girl Place five years ago. I was in Chicago with my best friend and her family for Thanksgiving, and they said I would love it. They were quite right. My second trip to American Girl Place was in the Mall of America last Fall, when I took my boyfriend to the brave new world of dolls and their accoutrements. We picked up a catalog and I spent the whole flight back from Minneapolis to Boston looking at it. By the time we arrived home I was totally hooked.
The catalog revealed that Molly McIntire, the braided brown-haired doll with glasses, would soon exit her life in World War Two, and travel to the “American Girl Archive” along with her accessories, and her evacuee friend from England, Emily, never to be sold again. And so last October to celebrate completing an important section of my PhD, a research paper on postwar Anglo-American relations, my boyfriend took me to American Girl Place in Natick and bought me a Molly doll before they disappeared inside the archive. It was unquestionably one of the sweetest things he has ever done.
American Girl Place is like doll heaven. To find the store we followed the stream of little girls carrying their dolls through the Mall in specially designed American Girl carriers, and watched a stream in the opposite direction departing with their red shopping bags with white stars. Upon arrival I rushed to the Molly section, nervous that she might have been put in the vault early. Thankfully there were plenty of Mollys. We got one, her accessories pack, and some 1940s pajamas.
With a Molly safely procured we looked around the rest of the store. Everywhere you looked little girls ran around, dolls in one hand, and bags full of little red clothing boxes in the other. Some waited in line for the dolls’ hospital, some had an appointment at the salon, while others waited to have a dolls’ tea in the tearooms. There was not a computer or phone in sight, just little girls having the time of their lives. As a multistory palace of dolls and accessories, American Girl Place receives frequent criticism for fueling commercially driven children, and “princess” girls. However, I didn’t see this. Instead I saw books for sale on topics such as good manners, surviving divorce, managing money, and being a good friend. I saw children playing together face to face, using their imaginations rather than an electronic screen. And I saw girls who placed as much faith in their dolls as I had once done.
Nearly a year later, Molly has more than just pajamas. Her collection includes a ski-suit, bunny shaped slippers, a nightgown, shorts, t-shirts, winter boots and coat, and a Halloween costume. She’s been to England twice and is the delight of my young nieces. Twenty-odd years late I got the American Girl doll my eight-year-old self (who had long brown braids like Molly’s) would have longed for. But I’m just babysitting. Molly really belongs to any future daughter I might be lucky enough to one day have. When that day comes, she promises to eat their cardboard sandwiches.