Dane County’s doll company
Over the past 35 years, American Girl has sold more than 36 million dolls and created more inclusive toys while maintaining a local headquarters.
I have vivid memories of paging through the original Pleasant Co. catalog when I was 9 years old. Most of my free time was dedicated to Cabbage Patch Kids, but my perspective on dolls shifted as I flipped through the glossy publication featuring American Girl dolls. Accompanied by more than a birth certificate and a quirky name, these new playmates came with historically rich backstories that sparked my imagination in a new way.
As American Girl celebrates 35 years, I am still in awe that the maker of the dolls which play an important role in thousands of childhoods (including mine) has roots right here in town.
American Girl’s design center and editorial and research teams — which create all the conceptual work for the dolls and connected books (including my Kirsten doll from childhood) — have called Middleton home since Pleasant Co.’s launch. After 35 years, the original headquarters will relocate in the third quarter of 2022 to another location in Dane County. Corporate representatives say the move is part of a consolidation plan. The company is looking for a new flexible workspace to accommodate a hybrid model.
Pleasant Rowland founded Pleasant Co. in 1986 — rebranded to American Girl in 2004 — with a goal “to create toys that would nourish a girl’s imagination and provide education and entertainment,” says Julie Parks, director of public relations for American Girl. “She wanted to create toys a child would play with not just for a morning, but for years.”
That mission was accomplished when it came to Madison residents, Mary Jane Bauer, 18, and Anna Bauer, 21, who played with their dolls as their “main toy” throughout childhood — as did most of their friends.
The sisters share fond memories of visiting their grandma (who introduced them to the dolls) in Ohio. “It was our little doll vacation,” says Mary Jane Bauer. “Around Thanksgiving we’d do a Christmas celebration, and she would have a little tree set up with all the gifts under it. My sister and I would sit in the room and stare at the gifts. If there was one that was that certain rectangle, we’d be [excited].”
Beyond the fun of playing with the dolls, the sisters now appreciate the learning that was happening behind the scenes. “Starting to play with them from such a young age made me more interested in things,” says Anna Bauer, who adds that putting history alongside the dolls really drew her in. “It gave me a head start in school. I’d know a random, tiny fact because I read about the Great Depression with [Kit].”
Dianne Hesselbein, state representative for Wisconsin’s 79th District (which includes Middleton), gifted American Girl dolls and accessories to her nieces and daughters over the years.
“I really liked that we could spark conversations at the dinner table, especially when they were reading what the doll’s life was like and the questions they would come up with,” says Hesselbein. “This was extremely valuable. I would like to personally thank Pleasant Rowland for exposing our daughters to that.”
The dolls and experiences offered have come a long way since the original three characters (Kirsten Larson, Samantha Parkington and Molly McIntire) were introduced in 1986. As of 2022, American Girl, which was acquired by Mattel in 1998 when it was still Pleasant Co., has nearly 70 American Girl dolls in its lines (Truly Me, Girl of the Year, Historical Character, WellieWishers and Bitty Baby), and more than 36 million dolls have been sold since the company started.
There has been growth as well as stagnation in those three and a half decades. The recent consolidation marks a shift for the company as many positions, including the contact center, are now fully remote or operating in a hybrid capacity, and the two warehouse operations and distribution facilities are not being utilized in the same capacity as they were prior to the pandemic. The decision affects approximately 55 warehouse and operations employees, but the company says it plans to add 40 additional jobs at its DeForest facility.
American Girl reported multiple losses over the past decade as it struggled to compete in its industry with a notably higher-end product and experiences that weren’t aligning with the consumer. Things have been looking up a bit since 2020, when the brand saw a 9% increase in revenue in the fourth quarter, the first quarter of growth in four years. In May 2021 for the 35-year anniversary, the company also rereleased six historical characters (pictured on page 13 and including Kirsten), generating nostalgia for those who grew up with the dolls.
Defining American Girl’s current customer is a conundrum. Many original fans are now parents considering purchasing the dolls for their children. While they may be influenced by nostalgia, American Girl has worked to stay relevant to a new population that is increasingly interested in more representation and multimedia experiences.
American Girl has also faced some criticism in recent years for the choices of issues that its characters face. For example, 2016 Historical Character release Melody is a 9-year-old African American girl directly confronting racism at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1964 Detroit. While 2019 Girl of the Year release Blaire is learning how to “keep a healthy combination of tech time and real time with friends,” according to the American Girl website.
In the past two years, the brand has “put even more emphasis on creating products, characters and experiences that reflect the multicultural and multidimensional nature of America today,” says Parks. World by Us is the newest line of dolls and books, released in September 2021. It celebrates diversity and spotlights social issues to help inspire positive change. This idea also aligns with the brand’s newest multimedia experience, Conversations for Change, a series that shares the stories of real-life women and girls taking action on important issues like climate change and immigrant rights. The most recent publication, “A Smart Girl’s Guide: Race & Inclusion Book,” explores race and anti-racism.
“We also know we have an important role to play in teaching kids about difficult topics as our world evolves,” Parks says. “It’s important to us that girls (and boys) can see themselves in our products, as well as learn about a life or culture that may be different from their own. We’re putting more energy and focus in our creative development process on the multidimensionality of kids today.”
Evaluating from a parent’s perspective now, I can appreciate how American Girl changed the doll play experience. I’m curious to see how the company evolves to appeal to the next generation while still maintaining their relationship with the parents and purchasers who remember the dolls from childhood.
Candice Wagener is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.
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