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A canny business move on behalf of the company is part of the reason so many people visit these experiential retail locations: It’s actually not very easy to lay your hands on an American Girl doll, and not only because a doll, with her accessories and accompanying book, costs $128. The dolls are not available at Target or Wal-Mart; they are available only on the American Girl website or at an American Girl store. Until my nanny came to the rescue, I had never seen the dolls in person.
The draw, toward the stores and the brand itself, is more than exclusivity. The American Girl, in doll and literary form, seems to be intended not only as an educational tool, but also as an aspiration and a companion, the ideal to which a girl hopes to live up and the real child she may already be.
The most fascinating thing about a historical doll like Rebecca is not so much the character’s personality but the process of her creation. The story themes and subjects, the historical moment and the doll’s accessories all aim to create a character who embodies an iconic time in American history. The goal is a girl who is accurate and alluring at once, familiar enough that a child identifies with her and enticingly different, so that a child wants to learn more. (Rebecca has a Russian shawl and Russian nesting dolls among her accessories for just this reason).
The company describes this paradigm, which was inspired by a trip that Rowland took to Colonial Williamsburg, as providing what Spanos calls “a window and a mirror.” Rowland wished to provide educational toys for girls of about 8 to 10, Spanos says, when these girls were possibly still interested in dolls but were becoming aware of the larger world around them and were able to understand the stories’ historical, cultural and familial themes. As a result, all of the American Girl characters are 9 turning 10.
American Girl’s historical dolls require about three to four years of development, and perhaps the most crucial portion of that process is spent deciding on — often with an advisory board and input from staff historians — the timeperiod and the central themes of the stories. Spanos and the executive editor, Jennifer Hirsch, say that even within American Girl’s own advisory board the discussion over whether to begin Addy’s story before or after emancipation was a passionate one (Addy’s story begins just before she and her mother escape).