My parents often joke that their basement is magic, able to expand and accommodate whatever we throw into it. I’m guessing there are more than a few magic basements out there. In them you might find some old friends: Samantha, Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Josefina and Molly.
I had three American Girl dolls. At around $80 for a doll in the ’90s, I knew I was lucky. These were not toys you bought on a whim. They were for occasions. I remember receiving the catalog and carefully poring over each of the outfits and elaborate doll beds I knew I’d never have. (I did hope to someday secure one of those little $8 brushes though.)
Over the course of my childhood, Felicity, Josefina and Amy (the personalized doll) showed up as gifts in that telltale vertical box. While I enjoyed the books about Felicity and Josefina, Amy came with a blank book, and I’d sit for hours in my room dreaming up her stories.
When reminiscing with friends over the toys of my childhood — Don’t Wake Daddy, Baby Shivers, Yum Yums— American Girl Dolls are usually brought up. The majority of these toys are long gone, but many people still have their dolls. While most of us have abandoned our friends in magic basements and garages, it remains that we can’t seem to dispose of them completely.
What is it that keeps these dolls around? The guilt of convincing our parents to spend $80 on a foot of plastic? The true connection we felt with these dolls? The books that took us someplace new?
Below, women from The Washington Post reflect on their American Girl experience. Leave yours in the comments.
“There are only a few books that I can remember reading from cover to cover growing up: ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and the American Girl series were the most memorable. As a girl with an active imagination, I superimposed myself into the lives of these audacious and lovable characters. Every December an American Girl magazine graced our family’s living room coffee table, and faithfully my elder sister and I would flip through its glossy pages reading about each doll featured in the publication. Even then I was intrigued by the stories associated with each doll: Addy, Samantha, Felicity, Molly, Kristen and then later Josefina, Kit, and Kaya; stories that transported me to different locations, historic time periods, and cultures.
My older sister, Rachel, was the first to get an American Girl doll. Her nurturing nature drew her to the Bitty Baby. At Christmas a few years later, I received my American Girl doll, a beautifully packaged Samantha. I was giddy with excitement. When the youngest of the Gaskill girls, Moriah was of age, she, like Rachel, chose a Bitty Baby. Having these dolls taught us valuable lessons, like how to be responsible and how to properly care for a cherished possession. American Girl books provided opportunities for us to cuddle with our mom and listen to the adventures of girls who were much like us. The American Girl brand is knitted into the fabric of my childhood and engenders the fondest of childhood memories.”
— Ariel E. Gaskill, client services coordinator
“My best friend Emma had seven dolls, and I was always jealous. So every year for my birthday I would ask for a doll of my own, and my dad would always tell me I couldn’t have one, because they were a marketing scheme by ‘men in suits.’
But even though he always said no, when the catalog came I would circle my favorite dolls and outfits, and dream of one day having my own. When I was 9 my wish finally came true and that year for Hanukkah, my parents gave me Kailey, the doll of the year in 2003. She came with straight blonde hair, a cool surfer outfit, and a story about ocean conservation, and she was perfect. My dad made me promise I would never ask for another American Girl doll again (a promise that I did not keep).
For two years Kailey went everywhere with me, to the American Girl Doll Place’s in Chicago and New York, where my dad demanded we never take him again; to run errands with my mom, where I wondered if people would think we were sisters; and on family road trips, where she was brought into every rest stop and restaurant. By the time I was 11 and starting middle school I had decided I was too old for dolls, and Kailey was left to sit in a closet with board games, Pokémon cards and other forgotten relics. Before I left for college, she was rescued from that closet, and has sat in a box, with all of her clothes and accessories, in my childhood bedroom ever since.”
— Aviva Loeb, designer for emerging news products
“I loved both dolls and history as a little girl, but man, that American Girl doll was expensive. So, my parents decided to use it as an opportunity to teach me to save. Besides, I already had a beloved Cabbage Patch Kid, several other well-loved dolls, Legos, Matchbox cars, plenty of board games, Barbies and many other great toys.
The Pleasant Company (who made the dolls) offered a free savings ‘game,’ that you could send in for and earn a sticker on your path to saving … likely for one of their dolls. Every quarter or so, I’d get the catalog and try to determine which doll I would get after I completed the game and saved all the money.
After what seemed like years (and very well might have been), I saved enough for a doll! But it was so much work. And at this point, the Playmobil Victorian dollhouse seemed way more appealing, so I did the math and made a deal with my dad: Would my parents be willing to pay for half of the dollhouse if I used my savings for the other half? He agreed! And that dollhouse is still one of my prized positions, albeit in the guest room of my parents’ house.
As for the American Girl doll, somehow the Pleasant Company (now a subsidiary of Mattel) still sends the catalog to my parents’ house every year, more than 20 years after I first decided to save up for a doll. I’m not sure if they’re taunting me for never getting a doll of my own, whether they think I have my own child now for whom I’d buy one, or if they just have never cleared out their old mailing list from the early ’90s. But coveting one of those dolls helped me learn how to save, negotiate and prioritize important financial decisions, all lessons likely more valuable than the doll herself.”
— Emily Guskin, survey analyst
“After four hours on Amtrak, and one harrowing cab ride, I was in New York City for the first time, and my head was spinning. But I needed to focus: I had come to accompany Kirsten to the salon at the American Girl Doll Place. There, a professional would spruce up her hastily chopped mess of matted blond hair. She had recently ditched her 19th-century period clothes and neat Dutch braids for a disheveled, modern look. Awaiting the appointment, my heart rate quickened while Kirsten’s countenance remained cool. I held her hand, which was just the right size for one finger of a human girl. She stared at me placidly as she passed out of my grip and over the salon counter. My stomach turned as my mother took me by the shoulders and wheeled me around and back into the crowd. How did this appointment once seem so necessary and practical? Tears welled in my eyes, but I didn’t look up at anyone. If it goes badly, I reasoned, maybe I could milk a second doll outfit out of this. The gymnastics leotard. Or just a hat. Kirsten came back to me in a sterile box, trimmed and well-brushed. They had even tightened her neck; I was informed that her head had been coming loose. I promptly took her out of the box and let her hold my index finger. I looked out onto Fifth Avenue in a new calm, my own loosening head now screwed back on right.
— Elinor Hitt, daughter of assignment editor Amy Hitt
“I got a Samantha doll when I was about 7 years old. I loved all the American Girl books but there was something special about Samantha. She was strong, stubborn, had amazing clothes and I was also fascinated with the Victorian period. I loved having tea parties with my grandmother and my doll. When I was about 8, my grandmother, mom, sister and I went to a Victorian tea that included the dolls. There was a maypole, churning ice cream, the works. Having the doll was a great bonding experience in my girl scout troop. We would make things for our dolls and talk about the books. When I was 25, I met a writer of several of the Samantha books and fangirled. This woman was able to encapsulate strong-willed girls in a moment of history that thousands of kids were able to identify with.”
— Liz McConville, national sales planner for Washington Post Digital
“Like most 90s kids, I had an affinity for American Girl dolls. I liked that the girls they depicted were brave, independent-minded and diverse. They represented, and introduced me to, significant periods in American history and their stories centered around female empowerment and friendship. And, unlike Barbie, they went on adventures, not dates.
For years, I coveted my older sister’s Samantha doll. It was hard not to; she had pristine locks, spotless skin and a collection of accessories that would make Cher Horowitz jealous. When my seventh birthday rolled around, and my parents allowed me to pick out a doll of my own, I selected Molly. More like me, with her braided locks, wire glasses and nerdy exterior, we were inseparable. Now, she lives in the attic, along with my prized childhood relics, including my Princess Diana beanie baby and retired Ferbie. And although her hair may be a bit matted and her face slightly scratched, she is still treasured.”
— Megan McDonough, editorial aide
“Looking back on it, I can’t believe I so incessantly begged my parents to buy me an American Girl doll (I’m even more surprised that my parents actually caved). Most of my childhood, I knew better than to ask for something that was so expensive, but I had just spent months devouring each American Girl doll book. Many of the girls I knew picked the doll that most closely resembled them (this was before personalized dolls became a mainstream option).
The character I chose, Kirsten, had blonde hair and blue eyes and didn’t look like me at all. Still, her story resonated with me in a way I had rarely experienced at the age of 8. Her immigrant story reminded me of my own family. The details and dates didn’t match up of course, but I was able to find my family in Kirsten’s stories, for perhaps the first time.
When I got my doll, my parents made it clear that I wouldn’t get any of the accompanying accessories or alternate outfits (understandably). Instead, my grandmother pored over each book herself and knit my doll outfits identical to those in the books. That, of course, became the best present of all.”