I'll never forget the excitement I felt the moment I spotted that perfectly wrapped box, shaped just large enough to house an 18 inch-sized doll. The American Girl doll line, first released in 1986 by Pleasant Company, was all the rage — a number of my friends from school shamelessly boasted about their Samantha, Felicity, Elizabeth, or Addy. For months, I had begged, pleaded and pestered my parents to buy me Samantha, but paying for the privilege of owning such an expensive doll and her must-have accessories — like her tea dress — was difficult for my lower-middle class parents to justify.
Christmas, however, was a time my father used as an excuse to shower his family with gifts — an atonement of sorts for his shortcomings that would increase his credit card debt but make us all feel loved. And I had a feeling that year — 1994 — was *the year* I was going to get a coveted American Girl doll that would tell the whole world (i.e. my classmates) just what kind of a girl I was.
Samantha was all the things I hoped I was.
In the early 90s, before The Spice Girls would go on to dominate pop music and give every young girl (and LGBTQ+ young people) a way to define themselves as either a Sporty, Posh, Ginger, Scary or Baby Spice, there were the American Girl dolls: a line of 18-inch dolls, books, and accessories that, according to the company's website, were developed to "teach girls ages 8 and up important lessons about our country's history and role of women and girls in shaping our country."
But the dolls were more than just educational toys — they were cultural staples that allowed those of us lucky enough to own one a chance to identify ourselves and then present that identity to our parents, siblings, and peers. For some, they saw themselves in Felicity: daring, fiercely independent, adventurous and brave. Others identified as a Josefina: thoughtful, quiet and humorous.
I was a Samantha — through and through. An orphan who lost her parents in a boating accident the summer after she turned 5, Samantha often questioned the status quo; was known to be defiant; was mischievous, playful, loyal, and giving. In other words, Samantha was all the things I hoped I was and would be as I continued to grow into myself.
I am not the only one who leaned on my American Girl doll's identity. According to Allison Horrocks, 34, a full-time park ranger with the National Park service and co-host of the American Girls Podcast, "We have conversations with people all over the world about this." Horrocks tells TODAY Parents, "The dolls are sort of a test for identify, and often people will start out identifying with one character and end up identifying with another as they grow older."
Horrocks and co-host Mary Mahoney, 35, launched the podcast in early 2019 as a way to go back and re-read the books, one by one, and talk about the characters, one by one. "We're both Mollys," she explains. "And I feel like that is a very Molly-type task." Since launching, the podcast has surpassed 870,000 downloads.
"Often people will start out identifying with one character and end up identifying with another as they grow older."
While the brand has pivoted to meet young people where they are now — the "World by Us" American Girl launch gave consumers contemporary dolls dealing with contemporary problems, such as climate change and immigration — the American Girl dolls still bring multiple generations together.
Kelsey Horne, 34, says that now that she has a daughter of her own, she's excited for her to understand the importance of the American Girl dolls. "I was 9 years old when I got my first American Girl doll," Horne tells TODAY Parents. "Kit really spoke to me the year she came out. Not only did she look like me, but she had a sense of adventure that I admired." Horne adds that she got Kit at a time when she was struggling with reading. "I had a disability at the time, and used her books as tools to help pique my interest in reading."
American Girl dolls also gave Mackenzie Sture, 29, a chance to connect with her grandmother when she was a child. She received her first doll, Kirsten, when she was around 7 or 8. "One of the things I remember about the dolls, other than the books they came with, was sewing and making additional clothes for them with my grandma," Sture says. "And Kirsten came with her hair braided in cute looped pigtails. It became my favorite hairstyle as a child and my mom recreated it for me. We called them 'puppy dog ears.''
Sture says that her mother also made sure that she had an inclusive collection of dolls, with different aesthetics and ethnicities. "The dolls I really remember were Addy and Josefina," she says. "These dolls were important to me because I loved reading and they both came with historical fiction books that were a fun way to learn about different circumstances in life." Of course, not everyone saw themselves represented in the historical American Girl doll collection; Black, brown, Indigenous, and other people of color often felt pigeonholed into picking the only doll who looked like them.
"Swedish American girls didn't feel like they had to choose Kirsten," Horrocks explains. "They could pick. But the way other kinds of dolls were marketed and received by people and their parents, a lot of people felt pressure to align with a doll or character that was of their same background." Horrocks adds that even now, groups of consumers feel under-represented, especially Asian Americans.
Still, the brand has been a cultural phenomenon. Now, as the brand celebrates its 35th anniversary, American Girl dolls were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
"It's such an honor," Jamie Cygielman, general manager of American Girl, tells TODAY. "From the start, our lineup of diverse and purposeful characters has occupied a special place in the hearts of millions of fans, many of whom are now parents themselves. We're proud and humbled to have sparked this kind of emotional, multi-generational connection between girls and their families for more than three decades."
I have long since lost my coveted Samantha — a regrettable reality of growing up. Still, I can clearly recall the joy of holding her for the first time; the love I felt for a simple yet oh-so meaningful doll; the pride I felt as I saw myself in her character and witnessed a type of strength and determination I so desperately wanted to emulate. I saw in her what I could be, and who I'd like to think I have become.