By Abigail Fine, Doctoral Candidate, Queen Mary University of London
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
In 1986, the Pleasant Company launched the American Girl brand of doll and book collections. At its outset, American Girl (often shortened to AG) had three dolls associated with different periods in American history, including early nineteenth-century Swedish immigrant Kirsten, the Edwardian-era Samantha, and a World War II-era girl, Molly. Each doll came with six books telling her story in her designated time period. For many American children, especially girls who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, these dolls served as status symbols and avatars. Much like Sex and the City had women asking each other if they were a Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte or Samantha, AG had girls asking each other which character they identified with, and indeed, some were Samanthas.
AG was purchased from founder Pleasant Rowland by Mattel in 1998 for $700 million.1 Under Mattel, the brand now includes more than seventeen historical dolls with their books and accessories, along with yearly Girl of Today dolls and their stories, and Truly Me dolls that consumers can customise. The brand also now includes dolls for younger children – Bitty Baby and WellieWishers. AG also produces films, a magazine, advice books on topics like puberty and bullying, and has interactive retail locations in several major U.S. cities.
In 1991, AG introduced Felicity Merriman, a nine-year-old girl living in Williamsburg, Virginia in the mid-1770s at the cusp of the American Revolution. Carolina Acosta-Alzuru and Elizabeth P. Lester Roushanzamir point out that Felicity’s personal trajectory reflects the national trajectory: they write, “Felicity continuously rebels against [eighteenth-century] social norms. Her rebellions are explicitly associated with the colonies’ struggle for independence.”2 Across the six books in her series, Felicity grapples with the limitations society has placed on her because she is a girl (rather than a boy) and she grows in political awareness as the unrest in the colonies begins to affect her daily life. For example, Felicity’s family wants independence from the British crown, while her best friend’s family is loyalist; eventually the girls are separated by the war when her friend’s family returns to England to live.3 As Felicity watches huge events unfold and witnesses massive protests in the colonies, she also learns that her voice matters even in small actions: in her second book, Felicity Learns a Lesson, Felicity joins the colonists’ protest against taxation on tea when she chooses not to drink it at her etiquette class, bucking peer pressure. Instead, “[Felicity] turned her teacup upside down on the saucer and put her spoon across it. ‘Thank you, Elizabeth,’ she said politely in a clear, strong voice. ‘I shall take no tea.’”4
Unlike with the other dolls, whose settings were either fictional (like Molly’s hometown of Jefferson, Illinois) or had progressed with time (like most places do) and were well into the twentieth-century by 1991, Williamsburg still operates as a living history museum which made it possible for children in the mid-1990s to visit Felicity’s world in a material way. Colonial Williamsburg (hereafter CW) began in the late 1920s, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. took an interest in the town and decided to restore it to its eighteenth-century appearance. The city became a tourist destination with the rise of the automobile, and by the 1990s it was the largest living history museum in the United States, as well as a top-notch research center.5 Currently, CW identifies its mission in these words: “That the Future May Learn from the Past.”6
Felicity was designed with CW in mind. AG founder Pleasant Rowland and Valerie Tripp, the author of the Felicity books, made many visits to CW while developing the doll, and a CW employee, Sandy Bradshaw, worked with AG to design Felicity’s clothing and accessories.7 In the mid-1990s, the CW Foundation worked with Pleasant Company to develop the ‘Felicity in Williamsburg’ tour package, which launched in 1997. The tour specifically aimed to engage children in the historical site. Children would walk in Felicity’s footsteps and experience life as a child in the eighteenth-century. The tour included embroidery lessons, dance lessons, and a lesson on the proper way to serve tea with a CW interpreter playing Felicity’s teacher Miss Manderley. Children on the tour decided whether to drink British tea, thus signalling their loyalty to the crown, or to protest, like Felicity does in the books. Children were also given a tour journal – a bit like a school workbook – with information about eighteenth century society and prompts for the children to write about their individual experiences.8 Full disclosure: as a ten-year-old, I took this tour.
As much fun as this tour was, it almost totally left out a crucial component of Williamsburg’s history – the enslavement of Black people in the colonies and early republic. The books don’t completely elide this topic: Felicity’s family owns two enslaved people, Marcus and Rose. Within the books these two characters are called “servants,” though the fact-based “Looking Back” section at the end of the books explicitly refers to their enslavement.9 Still, this is a difficult conversation that Felicity’s books largely ignore. Importantly, this topic is not ignored by the first Black American Girl doll Addy Walker, who was introduced to the AG collection in 1993: Aisha Harris has written an excellent article on the complicated legacy of the Addy doll and books – for both Black and white Americans.10
Today, CW has a robust Black American interpretation division led by and comprised of Black historians and re-enactors.11 The overall approach to history at the museum has become less sycophantic and nationalistic in the past twenty-five years. Interpreters at the site now present history as complicated, nuanced, and sometimes ugly or horrific – to the chagrin of many conservative Americans who seem to want CW to be a bastion of Constitutional originalism and, frankly, white nationalism. Even as early as 2010, Tea Party activists attempted to use the history at CW as a justification of their conservative values, but in recent years articles in the Washington Post have proclaimed that CW is officially “woke.”12 While most of this shift in historical presentation is seen in events aimed at teens and adults, even children’s programming now reflects more than white history. The “day in the life” children’s activities – similar to the skills learned on the Felicity tour – still exist and are now at the Geddy House. The activities at this location are consistent with the experiences of white, upper middle-class children in the house of a prosperous merchant. But other programming – including Loquacious Lucy, Queen for a Day – explores the lives of enslaved children in Williamsburg, while programs with an interpreter playing eighteenth-century teacher Ann Wager (a white woman) focus on schooling for both free and enslaved Black children.13
Almost from its inception AG, too, sought to be a diverse, and even progressive, place. This is not without its problems and idiosyncrasies, though. For example, Alcosta-Azuru and Roushanzamir note that much of the diversity in AG’s line-up of dolls comes through in ethnicity only.14 Diversity does not extend to socio-economic class, as all of the primary AG characters have a measure of wealth and privilege.15 Still, to their credit, the stories told by AG present “American” as encompassing a range of ethnicities and languages, a multitude of histories, and most of all, the idea that all people deserve equal rights.
That ethos is coming through in how AG’s legacy is being realized in this historical moment. In 2016, the CW blog Making History Now published “We Are the Felicity Generation” written by Whitney Thornberry, a CW interpreter. “Felicity’s story touches on so many things that we discuss on a daily basis here in Williamsburg, moments and issues that caused me to think beyond my world as a young girl. How everything about the grown up world—politics and war, especially—are far more confusing… than they seem to be on the surface,” Thornberry explained.16 The article featured photographs of six different adult interpreters re-enacting the covers of Felicity’s six books – books they all read as children, long before they worked at CW. These are the people who are now teaching children (and adults) the nation’s history and thus, shaping the future.
Today, American Girl memes are taking over the internet: on June 23, 2022 the New York Times published an overview of AG meme accounts and interviewed one of the women behind @Hellicity_Merriman, an Instagram account that amassed more than 136,000 followers between May and June 2022.17 The account avatar shows the head of a Felicity doll photoshopped with devil horns. In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, photographs published in the New York Times showed protesters taking to the streets, many with signs featuring memes from the @Hellicity_Merriman account.18
The so-called “Felicity Generation” learned early on that everyone’s voice could matter: the books teach children that the choices they make have an effect on history. And AG remains a popular brand in the USA, though it no longer boasts the sales power of its 1990s heyday. Still, people who grew up on AG are giving the books and dolls to their children, including the newer books of Melody Ellison, a Black Civil Rights era doll, and Nanea Mitchell, a biracial girl of native Hawaiian descent living near Pearl Harbor in 1941. In September 2022, AG released a new doll, Claudie Wells, a Black girl living in Harlem in the 1920s, during the era of the Harlem Renaissance. Claudie’s books are penned by New York Times best-selling author Brit Bennett and celebrate Black artistic achievements without shying away from hard realities of history.
Just like Felicity learned to protest for her rights as the United States became its own nation, the people who grew up inspired by AG still to look to the stories of their childhood – hopefully in more intersectional and community-driven ways than the original stories allowed for – as they continue to fight for human rights in the United States.
Abigail Fine is a PhD researcher at Queen Mary University of London working in the areas of children’s and YA literature, fairy tales, adaptation theory, and fashion studies. Her PhD thesis focuses on the embodiment and sartorial presentation of the fairy godmother in ‘Cinderella’ adaptations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She is a lifelong fan of American Girl dolls, Disney movies, Broadway musicals, and the Muppets. She also loves Doctor Who and she is a huge history nerd, especially for the long eighteenth century. This post was originally part of a paper given at the University of Oxford/TORCH ‘Children and Heritage Colloquium’ in July 2022. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @onceuponafine.
- “Profile: Pleasant Rowland,” Forbes, June 14, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/profile/pleasant-rowland/?sh=33c6fae73b59.
- Carolina Acosta-Alzuru and Elizabeth P. Lester Roushanzamir, “‘Everything We Do is a Celebration of You’: Pleasant Company Constructs American Girlhood,” The Communication Review 6, 1 (2003): 55.
- Valerie Tripp, Changes for Felicity (Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company, 1992).
- Valerie Tripp, Felicity Learns a Lesson (Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company, 1991), 61.
- James S. Miller, “Mapping the Boosterist Imaginary: Colonial Williamsburg, Historical Tourism, and the Construction of Managerial Memory,” The Public Historian 28, 4 (2006): 51-74.
- “About Colonial Williamsburg,” Colonial Williamsburg, https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/learn/about-colonial-williamsburg/.
- Colonial Williamsburg Employee Behind Beloved American Girl Doll,” Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, February 18, 2017, https://wydaily.com/our-community/our-neighbors/2017/02/18/hometown-meet-the-colonial-williamsburg-employee-behind-beloved-american-girl-doll/.
- Betty Ross, “Williamsburg, All Dolled Up,” The Washington Post, April 18, 1997, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1997/04/18/williamsburg-all-dolled-up/7b49ecb8-96d6-472b-90c5-735442050e0f/.
- Valerie Tripp, Meet Felicity (Middleton, WI: Pleasant Company, 1991), 69.
- Aisha Harris, “The Making of an American Girl,” Slate, September 21, 2016, https://slate.com/culture/2016/09/the-making-of-addy-walker-american-girls-first-black-doll.html.
- Jennifer Barger and Heather Greenwood Davis, “Historical Interpreters Share Their Sides of the Story,” National Geographic, September 25, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/historic-interpreters-changing-the-conversation-about-race.
- Amy Gardner, ‘‘’Tea Party’ Activists Drawn to Williamsburg and Its Portrayal of Founding Fathers,” The Washington Post, August 1, 2010, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/31/AR2010073103051.html?sid=ST2010073103099; Peter Marks, “Colonial Williamsburg Gets Real,” The Washington Post, May 23, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/05/22/colonial-williamsburg-dramas-slaves-troubled-past/?itid=lk_inline_manual_1; this article was originally titled “The Newly Woke World of Williamsburg,” per an op-ed by Mary Alexander, published in the The Washington Post on May 28, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/letters-to-the-editor/colonial-williamsburg-has-been-woke-for-a-while-now/2021/05/27/b6e9ad26-be3f-11eb-922a-c40c9774bc48_story.html.
- These events can be found on the Colonial Williamsburg Events page, https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/events-calendar/.
- Acosta-Alzuru and Roushanzamir, 60.
- Acosta-Alzuru and Roushanzamir, 60.
- Whitney Thornberry, “We Are the Felicity Generation,” Making History Now, January 12, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20160115072550/http://makinghistorynow.com/2016/01/we-are-the-felicity-generation.
- Valeriya Safronova, “American Girl Doll Jokes are All the Rage,” New York Times, June 23, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/23/style/american-girl-memes.html.
- Chelsea Rose Marcius, Téa Kventenadze, and Lola Fadulu, “Thousands Protest in New York After Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade,” New York Times, June 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/24/nyregion/abortion-protests-ny.html.
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