Girls and Dolls Childhood: It's hard to say who loves Felicity more, the girls who tour Williamsburg with their dolls or the mothers trailing behind them.

July 07, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- A dozen little girls in dust caps clutch dolls in dust caps, and their excitement threatens to burble over the boxwood borders of this hidden garden.

In the shelter of trees that might date from the Revolutionary War, Mistress Laura, their guide, takes a moment to instruct these young ladies in the respectful "courtesies" they will need to offer when meeting citizens of rank in the dusty streets of this Colonial town.

"Ah, Mistress Jessica," she says to one of the little girls in her tour as she pulls at the corners of her long, gathered skirt and bends her knees to demonstrate a greeting.

"You are from the Colony of Maryland? Did you come by horse? trust you had gentlemen escorts, for it can be a dangerous journey."

What say you, Mistress Laura? Gentlemen escorts? We think not. Not for spunky, sprightly girls full of energy and independence. Not for girls like Felicity.

Felicity is an American Girls doll, conceived in the imagination of a doll maker named Pleasant Rowland and now alive in the minds of the 10-year-old girls who have made a pilgrimage here for "Felicity in Williamsburg: An American Girls Experience." It is a tour of this restored town as Felicity would have seen it.

The tour is adorable, the latest triumph in the brilliant marketing of a set of heirloom-quality dolls and the books of historical fiction that tell their stories: World War II Molly, Victorian Samantha, pioneer Kirsten, Colonial Felicity and Civil War-era Addy, a runaway slave.

The names of these dolls are more common on the lips of elementary-school girls than the names of friends on a sleep-over guest list.

But the American Girls phenomenon goes far deeper than the usual love affair between girls and their dolls.

Pleasant Rowland is onto something that touches the heart and satisfies the yearnings of the modern mother.

With the dolls, there can be the tender play these mothers remember from their own girlhood. And in the books, there is history with women and girls as participants instead of only as spectators and hearth keepers.

Felicity and her friends are girls of intelligence, strength and spirit. They are thoughtful and courageous, and, poised on periods of significant change, they take the challenges as they ,, come. In the plucky independence of these 10-year-old heroines, mothers see the gumption that can inspire their daughters.

"I want this for her," says Joyce Lisbeth of Warrenton, Va., as she watches 9-year-old Laura chase a hoop with a stick just as Felicity might have done. She crosses her arms to punctuate her declaration. In the crook of her elbow rests her daughter's doll, Felicity.

A doll empire

Ten years ago, Pleasant Rowland was dismayed to find nothing but Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls to buy for her nieces and set about using the money she earned writing elementary textbooks to correct this. Her Middleton, Wis., mail-order company has since sold 3 million dolls and 35 million books.

In 1986, we met Samantha Parkington, Molly McIntire, and Kirsten Larson. Felicity Merriman arrived in 1991, and in 1993 Addy Walker, who makes a new life in freedom, was introduced. Drawing nearly as much attention and commentary as Colin Powell's autobiography, Addy's books hit the children's best-seller lists.

These dolls are now an empire.

To go with the stories of each girl's adventures in politics, family life, school and friendship, you can buy more than $1,000 in accessories and artifacts that might have been copied from the pages of a museum catalog. But you won't find American Girls dolls in the aisles of Toys 'R' Us, and you won't see their faces on lunch boxes or T-shirts. Rowland guards her vision of %J innocent girlhood tightly behind a privately held company that had more than $200 million in sales last year. Though the 30 novels are available in book stores and even discount stores, the dolls and their stuff can be bought only through one of the 38 million catalogs mailed each year.

And there is plenty of stuff in those catalogs to feed the acquisitive nature of little girls who love to daydream over wish lists: six sets of clothes and gear, skin and hair-care sets, luggage, maps and calendars, bedroom furniture, school desks and birthday-party tables.

You can order miniature dolls for the dolls, and the miniature dolls can have their own miniature books.

There are craft kits and theater kits and paper dolls and cookbooks, a magazine with a circulation of 600,000. There is a library of advice and activity books. A line of girl-sized period clothing: nightgowns and day dresses, party frocks and separates.

The dolls' educational and charitable ventures are flourishing, too.

Like Felicity, Kirsten has her own, though more modest, tour of an existing Swedish history museum near the Twin Cities, and Pleasant Co. hopes to establish living museums for each of the dolls.

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