Dear American Girl: Open the vault!

I got a letter the other day from my friends at the American Girl company in Middleton, Wis.

Well, it wasn’t to me personally, just all of us poor saps who granted our daughters’ wish for an American Girl doll — in this case, Felicity Merriman and/or her best friend, Elizabeth Cole.

My daughter was smitten with Elizabeth (I think she liked her fancy dresses) and waited patiently until her sixth birthday last year to get her doll. Given the price tag, we hoped to milk years of enjoyment out of it and the accompanying books about Felicity, that “spirited colonial girl,” and her best friend Elizabeth (a Tory).

We didn’t know their days were numbered.

“Dear Felicity fan,” the Aug. 31 letter began. “We’re writing with important news about one of our most treasured American Girl dolls — Felicity Merriman®. We wanted you, as one of her biggest fans, to be among the first to know that soon, Felicity’s complete collection, including her best friend Elizabeth Cole™, will be moving into the American Girl Archives™.”

Archives. Storage. Land of the Has-Beens. (Just ask Jessie, Bullseye and Stinky Pete.)

“Like you,” the letter continued, “countless American Girl fans have found a friend in this spirited colonial girl since her introduction in 1991. Bringing Felicity’s world to life — from saving a beautiful horse named Penny, to learning how to be a proper gentlewoman with Elizabeth® — has been a journey we’ve enjoyed sharing with you.

“As we bid Felicity and Elizabeth a fond farewell, we do so knowing their departure will make it possible to introduce new characters and time periods for our customers to enjoy.”

Meaning: lots of new things for us to buy.

“Watch for more information in our catalogues and at americangirl.com. In the meantime, don’t miss the opportunity to purchase items from Felicity’s collection before it’s too late.”

In other words, step on it and buy all the stuff before it’s gone forever and your daughter is crushed because she can’t get Elizabeth’s cloak or Felicity’s pony.
This ranks right up there with the Disney “vault.”

I knew going down this road that I was up against marketing genius. My older nieces had American Girl dolls back in the day, when they were still a new concept from a small firm known as Pleasant Company. We were all attracted to the authentic feel of the dolls, the craftsmanship of the accessories and the history behind them.

The books featured stories about life in different time periods told from the eye of their 9-year-old heroines — from pioneer girl Kirsten Larson and Victorian-era Samantha Parkington (both now in the “Archives”) to the perky Molly McIntire of World War II. The stories had good life lessons, and so what if Molly’s glasses cost more than my drugstore readers?

The company gradually added more dolls, including Felicity and the wildly popular Kit Kittredge, the resilient girl of the Depression who yearns to be a newspaper reporter.

At some point, American Girl apparently realized all the dolls had the same skin color, and added an African-American doll (Addy), a Latino doll (Josefina) and a Native American doll (Kaya), all from relevant periods of American history.

Next came Bitty Babies (you can even get twins), then an annual American Girl of the Year with names like Chrissa and Lindsey. These days you can buy a doll to look just like your child, with virtually every combination of eye color, skin tone and hairstyle.

(One of the latest “historical” dolls is Julie, from the 1970s. My childhood is now considered an artifact. I even had the same pink foot rug.)

Add to all of that, a magazine, TV movies and a motion picture starring Kit, plus stores cropping up in new cities every year.

As it happened, we just made our first pilgrimage to the American Girl Place store in Chicago in mid-August. I managed to get away with spending only $30 — $15 for a Felicity video and $15 to give Elizabeth a new hairstyle at the doll hair salon (I know, I know). It could have been worse. We avoided the $250 package that includes lunch/tea with your doll and heaven knows what else.

(That doesn’t count the unfortunate encounter I had with a parking-garage post on our way out, but... hey, we have insurance. To be fair, it was one of those downtown garages designed for munchkin cars, where you duck every time you go down a level and wait for your roof to scrape the ceiling.)

This was a long-awaited trip for my daughter, and she was just thrilled to be there and see all the dolls and their accessories. She and her friend happily watched the Felicity video that night, and the next morning, and planned what to save up for next.

Two weeks later, we got The Letter. Now the website even warns, “Last holiday to bring Felicity and Elizabeth home!”

The books and DVDs will still be available even after they’re retired. And it’s possible, says company spokeswoman Julie Parks, that Elizabeth and other archived dolls may return someday.

In the meantime, I’m drafting a letter back to the company. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

“Dear American Girl: We are writing with some important news about our family. We wanted you to be among the first to know that our American Girl resources may soon be moving into our archives.

“We know you have enjoyed the use of our money since we were first introduced to your collection in 1991, but we think it will be better invested elsewhere. As we bid you a fond farewell, we do so knowing our departure will make it possible for us to send our daughter to college.”

I doubt I’ll send it. And if my daughter wants more Elizabeth accessories, I’ll probably buy them.

Or maybe she’ll switch to Julie. Surely she’s too young to be archived. Right?

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You can reach News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter.com/jawurth. Or leave a comment below!

Photo: Felicity Merriman (left) and Elizabeth Cole. Courtesy American Girl

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algon wrote on October 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm

I love this post! I wish you could have known American Girls back when they were new; before it became so mass-consumed. Back when I was a kid, probably about 14-16 years ago, the only available items weres the original characters from the books, and their accessories related to the stories.

My sister received Molly once Christmas, and I received Samantha. We spent hours playing with those dolls. We were lucky that our mom could make clothes for the dolls, and so we had a variety of outfits. She even made my sister and Molly matching pajamas. I think my favorite accessory was Molly's raincoat and umbrella, and Samantha's hat with the ribbons. Truly, I think those dolls and their must-haves made my sister and I appreciate the value of a dollar, because we had to save our money when we wanted to add something to our collection.

Now I see the catalogs that come to a house I babysit at, and I am surprised at the explosion of what is available now. I'm sure that expansion is due to popular demand, but the dolls and their accessories somehow don't seem as special or nostalgic.

Meg Dickinson wrote on October 13, 2010 at 8:10 am
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Once (or maybe more than once?) our parents took us to a "gently used" sale in Wisconsin, where they sold items that had been returned and repaired. Allowance money went so much further at that place than in the catalog.
I must've saved a LOT of money, because I bought a Bitty Baby and an Addy doll (they were steeply discounted, though). It was so cool to be able to touch all the different furniture and clothes - this was, of course, before the store existed. I remember a long line and lots of jostling.
Even after we were really too old to play with the dolls anymore, we'd lug them along to babysitting jobs, or bring over babysitting kids to play with them at our house. They provided hours of entertainment.

algon wrote on October 13, 2010 at 9:10 am

Remind me to thank my parents for their dedication to the American Girl phenom. And for discounting the appeal of Barbies. Thank goodness the Braatz dolls weren't around then.

Julie Wurth wrote on October 13, 2010 at 11:10 am
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Thanks, Meg and Allison, for sharing your memories. I know my nieces (now in their 20s) still treasure their dolls and all the accessories. They've saved them in trunks my mom/brother made for them, lined with wallpaper to match each doll's time period (Victorian flowers for Samantha, polka dots for Molly, etc.) We visited my sister over the weekend and pulled out the Molly and Samantha dolls -- my 7yo was thrilled!
I need to find one of those secondhand AG places! And I second the motion on Braatz. Ick.

Kyle Harrington wrote on October 12, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I had no idea that they even retired dolls! My parents gave me my first American Girl doll (Molly) in 1991, when I was six. Molly was my side kick-- climbing trees, fording rivers-- a partner in epic hours of pretending (and the unfortunate recipient of a hair cut at one time). I hate that since the Mattel take over, the specialness seems to be lost. I loved getting the new catalog in the mail and pouring over the pages, circling a million items that I knew I would never receive.

It is nice that American Girl dolls now encompass different races, backgrounds and time periods. Replacing old dolls doesn't seem a viable option to me!

algon wrote on October 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Uh, oh...you cut Molly's hair! I bet your parents were not thrilled. Too bad the salon in Chicago was not yet available for an emergency appointment then.

Kyle Harrington wrote on October 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Luckily, it was only a trim. A choppy, uneven trim. But still a trim. I would take Molly down to the creek behind the house. By the time I retired her, her limbs were barely hanging on. She went through at least 6 pairs of glasses, too. But, as a good doll should, she accompanied me on all of my childhood adventures... she has definitely seen better days though!

Julie Wurth wrote on October 13, 2010 at 11:10 am
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Kyle, it sounds like Molly could use a visit to the American Girl hospital (not sure how much that costs)! One of my daughter's friends cut her own doll's hair and her sister's -- that didn't go over well with mom. :)
All that wear and tear is a sign of how much you loved her. That's the way it should be!

dw wrote on October 12, 2010 at 3:10 pm

You can take comfort in withdrawing your financial support from AG: It is highly likely your American Girl doll and her accouterments were by an underpaid, underage girl in China.

http://cbs11tv.com/local/american.girl.dolls.2.607983.html

Child labor is notorious throughout the toy industry and export industry:

http://www.dol.gov/ilab/media/reports/iclp/sweat/china.htm

I have a good friend that designs toys that says prior to visits by foreigners who outsource, the factories shutdown sections where children work... apparently there's a fine line between school/daycare facilities and labor...

Yeah, we own one too :-(

Julie Wurth wrote on October 13, 2010 at 11:10 am
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I hadn't researched it, but I guess I'm not surprised given that such a large majority of toys are made there. The height of irony (American Girl dolls made in China, by underpaid young girls) .... at least the accessories don't have lead. I'm going to look back at the old ones (from Pleasant Company) to see if they were made in USA.