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Classic or cult? The American Girl turns 25

American Girl

You’ll know when it happens to your daughter.

They become distracted, single-minded. They develop an obsession with clothing. They’re fixated on learning how to do cool hairstyles.

And no, this isn’t your daughter entering adolescence. This is your daughter – as young as age 5 -- entering the world of the American Girl doll, the crazy-popular doll/book company that’s celebrating 25 years in business.

Originally known as the Pleasant Company, the Wisconsin-based mail-order biz started as a line of dolls and books based on 10-year-old characters that focused on periods of American history. There was Addy, who escapes slavery, and Kit, who grew up during the Great Depression, and Molly, who grew up during World War II. The crew was gradually joined by more contemporary figures and a new doll – dubbed “Girl of the Year” – that comes out annually. (This year it’s Kanani who shares the aloha spirit of Hawaii.)

The stories of the dolls do make for good reading, and American Girl rightfully touts itself as a “publishing powerhouse,” given that it has sold 135 million books since 1996.

But, we all know the real lure for little girls. It’s those $100 dolls that can be customized to look exactly like them. And then there’s all the stuff: the outfits (pajamas with slippers and eye mask), the accessories (like teeny little cell phones and doll-sized tennis balls), and even furniture. What, doesn’t every doll deserve a four-poster bed? Or a bathroom vanity?

It only takes one doll to suck you in.

That one doll begets accessories, which are so darn cute you’ve got to invest in another doll. Then it’s only a matter of time before your kid figures out there are American Girl stores around the country…where you can go, with your doll, and have lunch or tea, or let your doll get her hair styled at the doll salon, or visit the doll hospital. (When I took my then-7-year-old daughter to the American Girl megastore in Manhattan, I remember thinking there was something odd about the place. That’s when I realized that all you could hear were female voices!  I couldn’t decide if it was eerie or empowering.)

Die-hard American Girl fans don’t seem to be bothered by the money it takes to support the habit. On its Facebook page, which has more than 15,000 followers, one girl commented: I have 13 dolls!”  Another writes:

“I have Julie, Lanie, Chrissa and a just like me doll named Layla! I AM TOTALLY A COLLECTOR GROWING PIECE BY PIECE! I found you right before my 8th birthday and started collecting. Once an American Girl, Always an American Girl!”

American Girl moms weigh in also, like this one who was disappointed with her visit to an AG  restaurant:

“It was too much money for very little food… There was no “experience" to make it worth the money we paid…I am very irritated that I got suckered into it. I would rather have spent the money on an outfit each for our two dolls!”

She was disappointed, yet she STILL wanted to buy more stuff for the dolls.

For its quarter-century celebration, the company is offering a seven-day American Girl cruise to the Caribbean in November. But don’t bother packing up your daughter, and all her dolls. It’s already sold out. 

What do you think of the America Girl phenomenon? Has it played a positive role in your daughter’s life?