A "historical society," begun this spring, already has 30,000 members, who work on the equivalent of Girl Scout badges in American history (it even includes "lesson plans" for mother). And a classroom curriculum based on the dolls' historical experiences is in place in several thousand elementary schools.
Organizations have used the fashion show kits to raise more than $2.2 million for children's charities, and the new "Samantha Ice Cream Social" kits should fare as well.
Buy just a doll and her first book and it is expensive -- $82 -- but not exclusive, when you consider that the average Barbie owner has nine Barbies at about $13 each. American Girls cost not much more than a video game or a computer game, and surveys done by Pleasant Co. indicate the owners of the dolls are not only little rich girls.
And, if imitation is the mark of success, the American Girls are a market leader. There are more than a billion Barbies out there, but Mattel felt a pea under its mattress and has started to dress Barbie in historical clothing and package her with teeny, tiny little books.
"Based on the success of the American Girls dolls, we saw that little girls were interested in history," said Mattel spokeswoman Lisa McKendall. "We thought we could be involved in this."
In a move that had some mothers wrinkling their noses in distaste, Pleasant Co. introduced the American Girl of Today doll last year. She comes in 20 ethnic flavors and is outfitted as if she stepped out of the mall, not the pages of history. She comes with backpack, bunk beds, in-line skates, scuba gear and a backyard barbecue complete with umbrella table and Weber grill.
What Felicity and her friends don't have, however, are breast implants, a foot deformed by spike heels, a spandex wardrobe or a dim boyfriend in the passenger seat of a pink Corvette. The American Girls dolls are the antidote for the Barbie bad body image backlash. Felicity and her friends have round cheeks and straight legs and are a little thick through the middle. They look like 10-year-old girls.
"We are not in the doll business. We're in the business of little girls," Rowland once explained.
"Our whole essence is holding off that onslaught of mass culture trying to sexualize little girls too early."
Mothers and daughters
Market researchers warned Rowland that she couldn't sell a mass market doll for more than $40, but she believed the educational link with the books would appeal to baby-boomer parents.
She was right.
"Part of the success is the books," says Christa Shuler, of Springfield, Mo., taking the Felicity tour with her 8-year-old Rebecca. "I would rather buy her an American Girls book than a Baby-sitters Club book. It is reading, but it is also learning."
Learning not just about history, but about girls like themselves who were just awakening to the fact that they have their own place in the family and in the community.
In the words of one of the authors, "they are girls who are acting on the world."
The girls are set in time, but in timeless situations. They must make choices about honesty, loyalty, friendship, family and patriotism. Their dilemmas are very like the ones faced by modern 10-year-old girls, and Felicity and her friends make the kind of value-based choices American mothers want their daughters to make.
This mix of wholesome doll play and vibrant self-esteem are the things that drive the real American Girls market: the mothers. Though their daughters want what the neighbor girl has ("I like the stories, but the dolls are cool because everyone has one," says Erin Hays in her Felicity party dress), it is the mother who phones the catalog 800 number with her credit card in hand.
"The dolls can satisfy the new mother along with the new daughter," says Cathleen Gray, associate professor of social work at Catholic University, whose daughter owns all four dolls.
"We want our daughters to identify with the spunky girl, not the sex object doll, all breasted and lean," she says. "That's what we mothers are trying to do for our daughters."
The core of the dolls' success is this chemistry between the determined mother and the suggestible daughter.
Marilyn Davis of Cockeysville wanted an African-American doll for her daughter, Allison, 10. Addy is that, but she is more.
"I wanted my daughter to have something to represent where we came from," Davis says. "Something popular, but something that was more." She agrees with the criticism that the Addy books make slavery seem like just a bad patch for a middle-class family.
"But I tell my daughter Addy's story is like Cinderella's story. It is a fairy tale. But it is a way to start talking about the truth about slavery."
Even the lessons in social graces that are part of the Williamsburg tour address the complex aspirations women have for their daughters. We want them to be astronauts if they wish, but we want them to be polite and graceful astronauts. We want them to change the world, but not to walk bow-legged or spit in the dust while doing it.