- The American Girl Company and the Uses of Nostalgia in Children’s Consumer Culture
In 1986, Pleasant T. Rowland founded the Pleasant Company and began to design dolls that corresponded to different eras in American history. Although Rowland sold these dolls through the mail rather than in stores, the company grew in popularity quickly. Since its founding, the company has sold over twenty-five million American Girl dolls (“Fast”). Mattel, the toy company giant, purchased this lucrative empire in 1998 and named the new subsidiary American Girl Company. American Girl dolls—along with their corresponding books, merchandise, clothing, stores, and films—are very popular among seven- to twelve-year-old girls. In 1999, the business was worth US$250 million (Hopewell); in 2013, gross sales of American Girl merchandise were valued at US$632.5 million, an 11% increase from the previous year (“Mattel”).
How have American Girl dolls become so popular? What part did the strong connection to American history play in earning the original dolls such a prominent place in the American toy market? This paper seeks to answer these questions by deconstructing the popular products and marketing techniques of the American Girl Company through the lens of nostalgia theory.
Over the past decade, there has been a considerable increase in research on American Girl dolls and affiliated products. Scholarly views of the company are ambivalent: not only do scholars disagree about the similarities between American Girl and Barbie (see Inness; Susina), but also they have examined the ways in which the American Girl brand constructs girlhood and American history, suggesting that the books and the dolls tell a story that reinforces materialism, female compliance, and dependence (Acosta-Alzuru and Roushanzamir; Marshall). The dolls have been the subject of photograph essays, which [End Page 35] depict the dolls in unusual contexts, such as lying on piles of money or in portraits with real girls around the country (Osei-Kofi; Szwarc).
As these examples suggest, scholarly work on American Girl dolls focuses most often on issues of gender. Scholars of girlhood media cultures point out frequently that girls are producers as well as consumers of media. Miriam Formanek-Brunell, Ellen Gruber Garvey (“Scissorizing”), Angela McRobbie, and Mary Celeste Kearney are among those who have demonstrated that, throughout history and in the present, various toy-makers have attempted to dictate how young girls should play with and treat the objects that are given to them. These scholars have also shown how consumers of all kinds reinterpret and create their own narratives. In this article, I do not seek to dismiss the agency of girls within girl culture, but I do want to highlight the ways in which affective attachment is mobilized by this particular toy company for the purpose of sales. To do so, I focus on how nostalgia functions within the marketing of the company.
Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the power of nostalgia has been an important tool for corporate advertising, as documented by Paul David Grainge (“Advertising”), John Berger, and Nancy Martha West. Nostalgia theory has not been an important strand of the collective investigation into the American Girl brand, however. To date, the only treatment of American Girl dolls in relation to nostalgia focuses on young adults revelling in their girlhood memories of the dolls (Brookfield). I investigate how nostalgia is used to create the desire to purchase the merchandise available from the American Girl company. Such an approach is crucial for understanding how the American Girl company forges what Berger calls a “way of seeing”—in this case, a way of seeing the past for consumers. The dolls, books, merchandise, catalogue, website, and store constitute pieces of the American Girl empire that both revise the past and idealize the present to ensure continuing economic success. The company uses nostalgia as a tool to foster consumer devotion to the brand, constructing a powerful narrative of revisionist history to sell idealized pasts and childhoods. It taps into nostalgia through multiple methods, recruiting parents, teachers, and Hollywood to reimagine both individual childhoods and a collective past.
The term “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor to describe a kind...