It was a family tradition. When each niece turned seven years old, my aunt and uncle brought us to the American Girl Place in downtown Chicago. The store is situated on Michigan Avenue in the heart of the city, and I remember the anticipation as I stepped out of the car to meet the nip of the Lake Michigan wind and heard—for the first time—the bustle of city life. There are few days I remember from my childhood so clearly. I had never liked Barbies and I wasn’t into princesses. But I adored the blonde “Just Like You” doll, the satin dress I picked out for her, and the matching outfit for me.
The American Girl line was first founded by Pleasant Company in 1986, boasting a line of 18-inch dolls based on American history. The first dolls—Samantha, representing the Progressive Era, Molly, representing the Second World War, and Kirsten, representing manifest destiny and westward expansion—were designed to offer young girls a doll their age to educate them about American history. New dolls have been added to the Historical Characters collection, representing American slavery, the Vietnam War, the American Revolution, pre-colonial America, the Civil Rights movement, and more. Since Pleasant Company was acquired by Mattel in 1998, the line has amplified its focus on non-historical lines, including look-alike dolls and the limited-edition Girl of the Year line—in which the company releases and discontinues a new doll each calendar year. Like Barbie or Cabbage Patch, American Girl dolls are made with two markets in mind: children and collectors.
I loved my American Girl dolls, loved buying them clothes, loved dressing them, loved talking to them. My grandmother loved the dolls with me. She would sew outfits for each of the dolls to model, and we’d take photos, debating whether we could combine eccentric pieces and “make it work,” searching for the right shoes to accompany each outfit. My grandma and I shared many passions—Sudoku puzzles, “adult” coloring pages, knitting looms—but the dolls were crucial. Every few weeks, we would haul all our recent creations to a church craft sale, spend hours setting up, and make $20. Given that craft sale tables cost $20 at minimum, we never made any money.
In what will be a year ago next week, my grandma died of COPD. And a year ago next week, I pulled my old dolls from the tote beneath my bed, dressed and undressed them, and displayed them in various outfits—handmade and otherwise. When my grandma and I played with dolls, we did so as both children and collectors: those who play with collectible toys, but nonetheless value their worth. The night my grandma died, I made a split-second purchase on the American Girl website: Rebecca, representing Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States.
Since then, I’ve become a collector. Well, I’m still somewhere between a child and a collector. I take my dolls out of the box. I touch them. But I’ve also grown to appreciate them as items to admire as well as play with. I research their histories rather than manufacturing my own. Over the past year, I’ve become an expert at eBay auctions and Facebook buy-and-sell groups—buying dolls new and used, in the box and out, intact and… not. Last summer, I taught myself how to repair and replace doll legs, then how to replace a doll’s hair and eyes. A few months later, I learned how to repaint a doll.
Every time a new box arrives in the mail, every new wig I attach to a doll, and every outfit I find—name brand or not—feels like another contribution to the modeling kit my grandma and I would use to dress our dolls. I’m still hanging on to $20, hoping for another booth at another craft sale.