The Pleasant Company, known for producing the very popular American Girl dolls, have become a full on “cult” to quote one mother I know. The catalogs brimming with expensive outfits, accessories, books, and even furniture make the preoccupation a costly one, and with an ever-increasing number of dolls to collect (including the “Just Like Me” series in which girls can have a doll designed in their likeness), it’s fairly easy to assume that the company is drawing your daughter in one tea dress at a time. But for all the trinkets and headbands that both girl and doll can wear, American Girl dolls can provide girls with an appreciation for history, values, and personal stories.
When I was a little girl, I begged for Samantha Parkington — the now discontinued Victorian brunette who lived with her “Grandmary.” I first came upon her picture in a Pleasant Company catalogs at a neighbor girl’s house when I was five years old. With frilly dresses, a big bow in her hair, and mary jane shoes, she not only looked like me, she also held a lot of the same interests that I did. I learned from the catalogs– the various passages that I circled on my bedroom floor with a ball point pen — that Samantha was a big reader and liked to paint. Her mother, like mine, had been an artist and Samantha was considering following such a path.
I remember my family remaining very aloof when it came to purchasing the actual doll, but they gave the books about her life first. I was just learning to read at the time, but I recall reading them with the grownups in my family and learning about all the details of her Victorian upbringing. I learned the meaning of the word “orphan” through her story as Samantha’s parents died in a boating accident when she was five years old — my age at the time. I considered what it must have been like for her to have her parents suddenly taken away, and what I might have done had that been me. It had never occured to me before that my parents could even die, or that one day they might not be there to take care of me. I didn’t even know any children who didn’t have parents, and so Samantha’s story began to intrigue me even more.
When I commented on Samantha’s pretty dresses in the book, my Grandmother told me that they were from what was called the “Victorian era.” I understood that Samantha was from a different time, but my Grandmother began to explain to me the specifics of that era — that even though the turn of the century brought new changes to our country, Samantha’s grandmother and guardian subscribed to a different set of beliefs about the place and ambitions of young girls.
When I finally got Samantha, it was on my sixth birthday. My father placed the doll into my bed while I was sleeping and so I woke up to the heroine who I had been reading so much about. I took her nearly everywhere with me and as more books and eventually accessories followed, my parents took to checking the Pleasant Company catalogs for birthdays and Christmas. My reading abilities improved and as I clutched Samantha on my lap, I read more about her friendship with the servant girl in her home, Nellie. I remember reading that Nellie was poor and came from a different “class” than Samantha — another word I came to understand through Samantha’s life. Nellie had spent most of her childhood working for other people — another concept that completely riveted my seven-year-old self. Aside from putting away groceries away from time to time, I never had any “work” as a kid, let alone slave away in a factory.
My family told me that there was a period where children were made to work but that these laws were determined bad for children. Still, the reality that I didn’t have to work as a little girl meant that I was “privileged,” a word my Grandmother made sure to use when articulating the differences between Nellie and Samantha. Nellie didn’t have any family wealth to put her fancy dresses or give her art lessons — she had more fundamental concerns like food and where to sleep at night. Samantha and I, of course, never even gave a thought to how these needs would be fulfilled and by the time I was eight years old, I began to see that Samantha and I had more in common than avid reading and mothers who painted.
By age ten I had become obsessed with Victorian history and literature — but unknowingly. What started as a love for Samantha’s aesthetic, her lace and bows, lead to book covers and other stories that echoed her themes and time period. I became intrigued with The Turn Of The Screw because I realized it was a book that she may have read in her lifetime. When I got into the fifth grade, my father recommended that I read Little Women because a lot of the characters were also girls like Samantha who lived, although not nearly as richly, as she did. I began to see the historical links between Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, my other favorite childhood heroine, and Samantha. Both of them wore pinafore dresses for outdoor play, the white apron over the blue dress making Alice suddenly more familiar to me.
Samantha Parkington and her fictitious life were not only a large part of my girlhood, but she was indefinitely the seed from which many of my interests as a young woman grew. An early appreciation for history as well as women’s narrative within history began with her face and her story. These interests were no doubt fostered by having this little doll who had a life that I could not only read and comprehend, but also touch and hold as I held her in my bedroom wondering about her day to day existence. Having Samantha also have gave me an awareness for the experiences of other girls and children — to get glimpses into what it was like to have been a young girl one hundred years from now.
The accessories and dresses may be costly, but if presented in the right context with parents who stress not only the delicate socks and gloves, but also the cultural context of the doll, American Girls can give kids more than a $22.99 Bratz doll ever could. The Pleasant Company’s line may cost more, but when you consider the message, the enduring quality, and the personal stories of the dolls, Samantha and Co. are very positive and enriching alternatives. With an emphasis on storytelling, history, and placing girls as fully developed protagonists of their own stories, American Girl Dolls are a “cult” worth belonging to.