Five can be a lot of work. Five heads of hair to brush glossy. Five sets of dresses, nightgowns and tights to keep folded and stashed in their plastic bin. It's fun, too, and Bianca Aprilliano, soon-to-be third-grader, is thinking of adding to her family of five American Girl dolls: Molly, Kit, Felicity, Samantha and Lindsey. The new doll, Bianca says, "is going to be really, really pretty."
So Bianca, slender and fastidious, has planned a trip to Chicago. She could simply page through the current issue of the hugely popular American Girl doll catalog. She could ask her mom to log on to the Web site and scroll through the scenes of dolls at tea or play or rest. But she's 8 now, and she has waited two years — "like, it's forever" — for the real thing: the pilgrimage to American Girl Place. Besides, she has been invited to meet the latest addition to the American Girl family, a doll whose identity has not yet been revealed. "I think it's going to be amazing," says Bianca, flashing a toothy smile. "And Samantha thinks it's going to be amazing too."
Samantha is the doll who will accompany Bianca on the adoption trip. She has dark brown hair like Bianca. And, after borrowing Molly's eyeglasses, wire-rims like Bianca's. The plan has caused some discord. "This morning Samantha was bragging," Bianca says. "Lindsey and the other girls were jealous." She dresses the doll for the trip in blue T-shirt and tan capri set. Bianca has a blue T and tan capris too. "I want to sorta match her all the time," she says; it makes Bianca feel like Samantha's mom. The others will stay home in Novi, Mich., with Bianca's father, a tax attorney, two brothers and two sisters. They'll read on the plush cream carpet of her bedroom. "Felicity is going to read to Lindsey cuz she can't read."
The train pulls into the Ann Arbor, Mich., Amtrak station at 8:45 a.m. Eleven girls, most of them members of Brownie Troop 3857, nine moms and seven dolls scramble aboard. Bianca has never been on a train. Never taken a trip alone with her mom, except for groceries. Never, since babyhood, been to Chicago. Small-town girls have long been lured here by bright lights, big city. Now the draw is dolls.
Girls love dolls. They offer practice in motherhood, sisterhood and friendship with an intensity that can approach the real thing. "There can be nothing, I think, more consoling and companionable than a doll," said author and play expert Vivian Paley. Boys care for their action figures. Girls buy other toys, like craft sets and board games. But the bond between girl and doll is a $2.4 billion-a-year industry. Once in a while a doll finds herself not just loved, but coveted. Barbie. Cabbage Patch. American Girl.
American Girl is the 18-inch doll with the expansive wardrobe and, at $84, expensive mystique. She boasts a zaftig figure, bookish tendencies and spunky personality. In her 31 incarnations, she has achieved cult status with the 7-to-12 set through her high-minded approach to dollhood. That, or her chubby cheeks, big eyes and soft hair.
The brand earns about $350 million a year. That's enough, according to industry expert Jim Silver, to rank American Girl among the top five toy companies in the country — if it weren't already owned by the largest, Mattel. In September, an American Girl store will open in Manhattan, but for now the only place to see the doll in all her vinyl glory is 111 E. Chicago Ave., American Girl Place.
Train conductor David Pryor rattles open the vestibule door. "I know an American Girl jamboree when I see one," he smiles. Every Friday, summer and winter, the Chicago-bound train is filled with girls and moms and dolls. Anytime girls are out of school is considered high season at American Girl Place. Indeed, there are at least two teams of girls and moms and dolls on each car of this train. Tiny girls totter in the aisles, Bitty Babies strapped into their backpacks. Big girls sit quiet and attentive, their American Girl dolls dressed in matching stripes or plaids. The girls recognize each other. They are on the same mission.
Bianca helps Samantha kick off her tiny sandals. She and her friends pull out Starbursts, Oreos, pretzels, graham crackers, Doritos, Tootsie Rolls, CD players, books, gel pens and journals. “I’m eating Runts,” Bianca writes. “I can’t wait till I go to Cogogo.” Five hours later, the girls are tired of waiting. Real and plastic noses press against the hazy windows, eyes straining for a glimpse of the city.
“Buildings!” says Stephanie Luther, 8. “Tall buildings.”
"Bianca has never been in a taxi, but she and her friends know how to hail one. Outside Union Station, they each raise a slender arm and walk headlong into traffic
At the hotel, while Samantha closes her sleep-eyes on the carpet of the sixth-floor lobby, Bianca takes in the view of skyscrapers. “If you put them all together it looks like God,” she says, “because it’s really tall,”
American Girl Place claims it has 1 million visitors a year, half of whom come to town specifically to shop for dolls, No one has managed to calculate the doll dollar trickle-down, but doormen up and down Michigan Avenue are trained to greet American Girl dolls by name. And anyone who has attempted to negotiate the tide of red bags can attest: Doll tourism is big,
“I want to know who made this up,” says Brownie chaperone Karen Luther, “because she has to be, like, a trillionaire,”
Close enough. Pleasant Rowland grew up in Beverly. At 10, she moved to north suburban Bannockburn. “My childhood was one of loving to read and of loving to put on plays and act out stories and marshaling the neighborhood to put on the carnival or the 4th of July parade,” says Rowland in a rare interview. “It was a very active life of the mind.”
“My interest in things old was piqued by my paternal grandmother. She loved to go antiquing, and I would go with her. I began to see the value of old things and other times through her eyes.”
Rowland grew up to be an elementary school teacher, TV reporter and textbook author. “I and the generation of women I grew up with really were the very first generation to break through, as a group, a lot of the gender barriers. We had broken stereotypical roles for ourselves. But the toys for our daughters were still stereotypical.”
At Christmas in 1983 she tried to buy her nieces a doll and was disappointed to find only Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids. A choice, says Rowland, between “teen beauty queen and mommy for an adopted child.”
She decided the world needed a better doll. Not one that asked a girl to play adult, but let a girl play girl. Inspired by memories of her grandmother and a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Rowland also envisioned a historic doll.
“I wanted,” she says, “to provide a thinking girl’s doll.”
In 1986, with $1 million she had earned from textbook royalties, Rowland launched her venture with three dolls: American pioneer Kirsten; Victorian Samantha; and World War II-era Molly.
Each plucky character is 9 years old. Her story, told in series of six books, is set against a historic backdrop, but emphasizes the common drama of girlhood, then and now.
“Those stories tell of the rewards of perserverance, the fact that a lot of our expectations in life are not met,” Rowland says. “They talk about the courage to face one’s shortcomings or mistakes, the importance of family and loyalty to friends. They help understand issues of jealousy and of being left out.
“We hope to show in these stories the rewards for those kinds of character values.”
In “Meet Molly,” Molly realizes that fighting is bad after she teases her brother, who retaliates by soaking her Halloween treats, after which she launches a surprise assault with a basket of underpants, right in front of the girl he likes.
Rowland called her approach “chocolate cake with vitamins.” Girls craved the dolls and clothes; moms approved of the values. Both were intrigued by the setting, a world where girls matter.
American Girl was the anti-Barbie, and she sold. In the first four months of catalog sales, Rowland has said, she took orders for $1.7 million worth.
American Girl Place, the exclusive home of the exclusive doll, opened in 1998. A pioneer in “experience” marketing, it offers not just dolls and books and clothes, but a show, museum-style exhibit, photo studio, etiquette lessons, tea parties and hair solon for dolls. “Girls are being socialized to shopping and to a ladies’ day out,” says Mary Ann McGrath, professor of marketing at Loyola University in Chicago. “It’s a destination for moms and their daughters to spend the day. A female theme park without the thrill rides.”
The store was considered a long shot — a single product taking up pricey real estate just off Michigan Avenue. Today, analysts estimate it grosses $35 million a year, moving product at twice the rate of the average Magnificent Mile retailer. “Now it has that Mecca-like attraction,” says retail consultant and early naysayer Neil Stern.
American Girl Place stands seven blocks from the Aprilliano’s hotel, Homewood Suites by Hilton. Bianca’s mom, Chris, 36, has already counted them out on Mapquest. It’s the first warm Friday of summer and the Michigan Avenue sidewalk is thick with street musicians and tourists. Among those gripping girls or dolls, there’s instant camaraderie. Waiting for the walk sign at Erie, a passing mom consults another on the proper age for her daughter’s first American Girl. At the next, a girl wriggles her arm at Chris Aprilliano, comparing charm bracelets. The crowd veers west at Chicago Avenue. Bianca tilts her glasses skyward, straining for the rooftops. Then she sees her destination. She gallops the last half block.
American Girl Place cascades over three levels. Waves of girls swirl and eddy through glittering pools and small coves of merchandise. The odd dad or uncle wears the look of a weak swimmer, caught in the undertow. The full-immersion, labyrinthine layout offers what retail psychologists call the “shopping adventure.” Bianca jumps in, one hand pulling firmly at her mother’s wrist, the other skimming all exposed merchandise. There’s a reason the Doll Patrol roams the floor, pressing outfits and rebraiding hair. Bianca churns through the upper-level rooms: bright Dress Like Your Doll, pastel Bitty Baby, pink Angelina Ballerina and dramatically dark American Girl Today.
Here customers can provision their dolls for the complete curriculum of real girlhood via meticulously down-sized accoutrements: flute, case, fingering chart, sheet music and music stand, $24; rock-climbing top, shorts, shoes, jacket, ponytail holders, harness, carabiners and chalk, $24; pedicure and facial supplies, including eye-cooling cucumber slices, $16; spa chair, $36. Faced with the working wheels of the SK8 GIRL skateboard, the American boy might be tempted to jump on. But the girl shopper is practicing for motherhood. She wants to let her doll give it a try.
Girls find dolls to care for. Dolls are offered mini-dolls to care for. Even the baby dolls come with tiny bears to care for. The tiny bears come with teensy tea sets and board books. A descending chain of well-appointed tending.
“I wanna go to Samantha!” Bianca announces, looking for her doll’s display. Downstairs, each historic doll commands her own vitrine where she models every outfit, piece of furniture and accessory she owns. Mounted along the outside, at 8-year-old elbow height, are pads of pulltags, detailing the merchandise — picture, name and price. Bianca understands her task. Skimming the edge of the glass like an exceptionally intent archivist, she takes in the diorama, checks the inventory against her holdings at home and pulls the color-coded tags for the missing pieces.
Finally, Bianca sinks into a sofa to sort. First Yes and No. Then More and Less expensive. When she’s down to 15 tags, Bianca and her mom retire to The Cheesecake Factory for perspective. “There’s a lot of decisions here,” Aprilliano cautions. It took Bianca a year and a half to salt away $221.75 for this trip, earned at 25 cents a chore. “I want [my children] to realize the value and importance of money,” says Aprilliano.
After grilled cheese, Bianca has thinned the list to three, including Samantha’s school desk, $68.
In 1998, Rowland sold Pleasant Company for $700 million to Mattel, making stepsisters of low-end, curvaceous, boy-crazy Barbie and high-end, chunky, bookish American Girl. Presumably, each doll gave the other a cold plastic stare, ran to her room and slammed the door.
Mattel, a tolerant parent, has let the two pursue their own interests. Barbie is still pretty and popular. The toy that built Mattel earns about $1.7 billion fo the $2.4 billion doll market. According to Silver, some 25 percent of all toys sold to girls are Barbies, not counting the bicycle or karaoke machine painted pink and marked Barbie.
But Barbie has been having friendship trouble. Girls 5 and up used to spend their playtime helping the teenaged fashion model try on her 1 billion pairs of shoes. Now Barbie moves into the toy box at 3 and out by 7. Mattel has tried to fill the Barbie gap with belly-baring My Scene Barbie. And with American Girl, whose products do not bear the Mattel logo. Meanwhile, American Girl has largely been left to her own devices. Pleasant Company headquarters remain in Middleton, Wisc., where the office of President (and Mattel Executive Vice President) Ellen Brothers overlooks the prairie.
Barbie is so mass-market you can get one free with your McDonald’s Happy Meal. American Girl is so snobbish her store employs a doorman. But the stepsisters might be influencing each other in subtle ways. Barbie has looked at a couple of books, notably in last season’s “Barbie as Rapunzel,” offered with a storybook. And American Girl has been getting a modern makeover.
While the historic collection retains a strong following, Pleasant Company also offers a line of look-alike dolls in 21 combinations of skin tone, eye color and hairstyle. Each of them is detailed on a Polaroid-style pulltag, like some genetics experiment gone retail. The print below the close up of GT18F, for example, offers dark skin, textured black hair and light brown eyes.
Advice books guide growing girls through setting the table, staying home alone, hiding a pimple and recovering from the embarrassment of dropping a tampon.
Then there’s the American Girl of today. The new product line relies on the old formula — an 18-inch doll packaged with personality — but these dolls are contemporary. Right down to their planned obsolescence.
First came Lindsey, a meddling 4th-grader, and, with her optional menorah and dreidel et, the first Jewish American Girl. Her scooter and laptop made her thoroughly with-it when she was introduced in 2001. And now, she’s thoroughly last season. Lindsey was retired in 2002. She’ll be replaced by a new doll.
A new doll that Bianca wants. A new doll that Bianca has traveled 267 miles to meet. A doll that Bianca knows nothing about, save for these clues on her invitation to the “sneak peek”: “She loves tide pools, boogie-boarding and big ideas, and she’s not afraid to take a stand!”
“I think,” says Bianca, “she’ll have blond hair.”
It takes about 18 months to make a doll, from the initial meeting of brand, marketing, editorial and product people to the moment her warm vinyl face is pulled from a rotating mold in China.
“The place where we start is, What is mattering to girls?” says editorial director Jodi Evert. “What is in their hearts? Of course, we also consider hair color and eye color and what she’s going to wear.”
Girls’ hearts are routinely consulted in focus groups, but Pleasant Company is deluged with free advice. Readers of American Girl magazine send in 7,000 letters and e-mails an issue. Shoppers hand out critiques at the store. Visitors to americangirl.com are eager to report their favorite fruit flavor and other intimacies.
The team building the new doll quickly identified her passion: the environment. It seemed logical to settle her in California, new territory for an American Girl character, and to hand her a boogie board with wrist strap. American Girl customers like accessories with action. She needed a name, something current and breezy and available for trademark. Kailey.
She acquired a wardrobe in the American Girl style — up-to-date but not racy — and a personality that was bold but not bad. “Each character stands for a particular idea,” says brand director Julia Prohaska. “Kailey’s is: One girl can make a difference.”
Kailey needed a fresh look distinct from Lindsey’s, a brunette. Her kanekalon fiber wig is layered with caramel lowlights and blond highlights. “It’s more sporty,” says Megan Boswell, director of product development. “Less fussy.”
All 18-inch American Girl dolls share the same soft torso and rigid limbs. Most, with the exceptions of the African-American, vaguely Asian and American-Indian models, sport the same snub-nosed two-toothed face. But some subtle work with the eye printing, wig style and face paint give each doll her identity. That, and her story. “We hand the author a skeleton,: says Prohaska. “She turns it into a girl.”
A wholesome girl. “My other books, the characters are pretty neurotic girls, like me,” says author Amy Goldman Koss. “[Kailey] had to be a happy, healthy optimist with supportive parents, a good family. That was a reach for me.” That, and avoiding contractions. American Girls can’t say “can’t.”
Under Koss’ lively hand, Kailey confronts the hotel developer who’s threatening to smooth out her favorite beach, ruining its tidepools. She researches the problem at her mom’s lab. She gets inspiration for an art protest from her dad, a painter. In the end, the developer is swayed both by Kailey’s determination and her mom’s lemon squares. He will put up the hotel. but he won’t mess with the beach. Kailey, in the parlance of the American Girl library, saves the day.
In rewrite, Kailey acquired Sandy, a golden retriever. Sold separately, $18.
Kailey makes her Chicago debut this weekend. She’ll be introduced to the rest of her public on the cover of the September catalog. But as one of the 162 high-volume shoppers at last month’s preview, Bianca is waiting outside American Girl Place. Moms clutch coffee and cameras and tickets. Bianca and Samantha show off fresh curls. When the doors open, moms grab girls and girls hug dolls as the crowd presses, politely, through the double door. There is a rush for the narrow escalator and at the top, stock still in the grip of her metal doll stand, Kailey.
Small hands reached up to touch her linen beach dress, wetsuit, tankini, snorkel gear, book, dog, camera boogie board, board wax and streaky hair.
Sales associate Karen Collins-Allen kneels to explain Kailey’s bold story and three-tone highlights. Bianca makes up her mind. “I decided to order her whole collection,” she says. “It’s about Kailey. She likes the ocean and she goes down there all the time and there’s this man who tries to destroy this ocean and she has to make a difference to change his mind. I like her highlights in her hair.” Her mother pulls out her Target charge card and deducts $145 from Bianca’s checking account. A lot of bed-making and table-setting.
By 9:30 a.m., when the security staff admits the general, doll-shopping public, Kailey’s cellophane beach has been razed and stowed in a basement-level cinder block storeroom called “the dungeon.” Visual merchandising associate Marjorie McCaw hides the bag of Kaileys on a shelf under the idle Christmas trees. “We’re still building that excitement” for the formal unveiling, she says.
On the ground floor, a mother stops at the concierge desk for directions to hospital admissions. Felicity’s eyelashes have been irretrievably jammed into her eye sockets. The doll hospital, in a corner of the warehouse floor at Pleasant Company’s Wisconsin headquarters, offers testament to the bond between girl and doll. There, doll physicians perform hip replacements and head transplants and other operations necessitated by common afflictions: little brothers, dogs and overconfident young hairstylists. The patients arrive in homemade paper gowns, clutching letters. “Please do whatever you nead to do to fix her, exseap [hurt] her,” reads one. “Make sher eats her spinich. And what all she needs. Tell her shell be home soon.”
With Kailey’s preview over, Chris Aprilliano announces, “Now we can shop!”
Chris buys gifts. Bianca selects a going-home outfit for Samantha: jeans, black T-shirt, red cap, and baseball jacket, $37. That brings her tab, along with $12 in barrettes and a $5 book, to $199 (mom covers tax). She transfers the two unused pull-tags — Kit’s bookbag and Samantha’s desk — to her mother’s purse. They can be added to her online wishlist, where Grandmas with the access code can peruse it.
In the afternoon, the Brownies meet at the hotel to change for dinner. Bianca wears the chiffon-trimmed blouse and ruffled skirt listed in the catalog as Fancy Flowers Outfit for Girls. Samantha wears Fancy Flowers Outfit for dolls. Like most American Girl dolls, she goes without underwear. Despite the brand’s emphasis on decorum, 8-year-olds agree that they lack the dexterity — and compunction — to bother. Matching dolls, girls and (nearly matching) moms are stacked three deep in the cab. “We’re fancy” says Bianca’s friend Stephanie. “So we can’t walk.”
Back at American Girl Place, Troop 3857 takes up two rows for the 4 o’clock performance of “Circle of Friends: An American Girls Musical.” The show concerns an unlikely slumber party where eight girls in baby-doll pajamas act out historic stories and work through modern rivalries. Friendship trumps adversity — personal, financial or political.
In one vignette, Ruthie, wealthy friend to Depression-era Kit, offers to pay for dinner out. “We’re just trying to help!” she pleads.
It’s a line Pleasant Rowland has been delivering herself. The reclusive entrepreneur, who retired from Pleasant Company in 2000, has turned reclusive philanthropist. The Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation has given $1 million to the Madison Symphony Orchestra, $2 million to an early-childhood education center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and up to $23 million in matching grants to local arts programs. She plans to retire to Aurora, N.Y., home of her alma mater, Wells College, and is spreading her largesse there through a major renovation of the historic town. But some of Aurora’s 720 residents resent the intrusion. In an unsuccessful lawsuit they’ve said, like Kit, “But I don’t want any help!”
The show closes with cast and audience rising to sing the sentimental theme, “Circle of Friends.” The girls struggle to find the lyrics on their lavender programs and the moms struggle to sing through tears. One mom says afterward: “When guys get together they go to sporting events or comedy shows. When women get together, people want to show us something that makes us feel sad or reflect. We like lighthearted too.”
At dinner in the black, white and pink cafe, the girls unravel miniature cinnamon buns. They’re a permanent fixture on the menu, homage to Rowland’s memory of a day she and her mother clasped white-gloved hands at tea in Chicago. The dolls settle into booster chairs. Bianca spoons pink lemonade into Samantha’s tiny cup.
After chocolate mousse flower-pot cake, the moms decide to return to the hotel and let the girls open some of those red shopping bags. “I forget they don’t like to shop as much as moms do,” says Aprillano. “they get tired. They need to play.”
When these girls play, they grip their dolls around their plush middles and speak with high pitch and careful enunciation that denotes doll-talk. They dole out roles. Katie Morisette, 8, and Marissa Giapa, 7, each hold a Kit. Katie needs clarification. “Do me and Marissa have to be poor?”
This question interests adults too,. Does prepackaging a doll with a name, wardrobe, personality, place in history and set of ideals leave room for imaginative play?
Megan Patton, 8, tells Katie: “Yes, we’re playing the actual characters.”
But soon the “actual” storyline evolves into one in which the dolls have lost their dog, then switches to a sleep-over and a ball. “We’re finally going to meet some really cool boys!” squeaks Megan for her doll Felicity.
This, play experts say, is how children ultimately use dolls: to act out fear and fantasy. The avid young reader may grow fond of a character she has followed through 400 pages of adventure. But she does not consider such background a script. Adults fret over Addy’s escape from slavery, or Barbie’s fulsome figure. But the doll is merely an actor under the firm hand of a young director. She stages a complex story. For Bianca and her friends, it’s the drama of being 8, the drama of being a girl.