- American Girls Collection:Barbies with a Sense of History
G. Wayne Miller's Toy Wars (1998) is a fascinating study of the economic evolution of the American toy industry from an independent collection of small, family-run businesses to a highly competitive market dominated by two major Fortune 500 corporations with international distribution: Mattel and Hasbro. With an estimated $15.2 billion in wholesale sales to retailers in 1998, the toy industry remains a highly volatile market whose sales are heavily dependent on the introduction and success of new products (Canedy C11). Consequently the marketing to children and their parents has become a significant and highly sophisticated aspect of the toy industry. Children's books compete with toys, television, film, and video for children's attention, time, and dollars. Critical texts such as Ellen Seiter's Sold Separately: Parents and Children in Consumer Culture (1993), Stephen Kline's Out of the Garden: Toys and Children's Culture in the Age of TV Marketing (1993), and Gary Cross's Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (1997) have begun to map out this aspect of children's culture.
Cross argues in Kids' Stuff that the American Girls Collection, the popular series of historical books, dolls, and accessories developed in 1985 by Pleasant T. Rowland, is an exception "to the excesses of the 1980s" and that these books and dolls are "a clear and opposite alternative to the Barbie" (225). While there are obvious physical differences between the two sets of dolls, there are also some surprising similarities between Barbie and the American Girls Collection in regards to marketing and the development of consumerism in children. The 1998 sale of the Pleasant Company, the makers of the American Girls Collection, to Mattel, the toy company that produces Barbie, would suggest that Mattel was able to see beyond the physical differences between the two sets of dolls and recognize that the two product lines were compatible.
Tucked away in the Holiday 1998 issue of American Girls Collection Catalogue is a curious object that hints at the success and origins of the series: an abridged version of John Newbery's The Little Pretty Pocket-Book (12). It is fitting that The Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) appears as one of the many American Girls accessories. Newbery is considered to be the first British publisher of children's books "to make a permanent and profitable market for them, to make a class of book to be taken seriously as a recognized and important branch of the book-trade" (Roscoe 9).
Putting John Locke's educational theories into practice, Newbery promoted Locke's concept of "instruction with delight," using as his motto "Delectando monemus," which he prominently displayed on the frontispiece of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. However, Newbery's attitude toward children's publishing is perhaps better summarized by his marketing slogan "Trade and Plumb Cake forever! Huzza!", which appeared on the frontispiece of Twelfth Day Gift in 1767 (Darton 4). Newbery's genius was in developing and expanding a fairly new product category, children's books, through his frequent advertisements in the press and his clever ploy of introducing additional titles and products into the body of his children's books. With the publication of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book and its accompanying "Ball and Pincushion, the Use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good Boy and Polly a good Girl" (Newbery 53), children's publishing became a field that regularly combines both art and commerce. As an astute marketer of children's books, Newbery helped children's literature but also encouraged consumerism on the part of the child and the parents providing for children. Moreover, the consistent theme of the children's books that Newbery published was that reading and learning are intimately connected to financial and social advancement, with The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) being perhaps the best known example. I would like to suggest that Pleasant Rowland and her American Girls Collection is a true spiritual heir of John Newbery.
The American Girls Collection—which Publishers Weekly has called a "publishing and marketing phenomenon" (Lombardi 23)—centers on six volume sets...