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The American Girl Doll… A Phenomenon

The American Girl Doll… A Phenomenon

Created in 1986, the American Girl Doll portrays girls between the ages of 8 and 11 with a variety of ethnic backgrounds beginning with Kaya, a Native American doll portraying the earliest of time. Each historical character brings the past to life with lessons of love, friendship and courage. Pleasant Rowland is credited with the creation of these dolls and the American Girl Company. She felt that there was a large gap in the doll market in the 1980s. Dolls were marketed as newborns requiring a “parental” attitude toward the doll by the child and Barbie was geared to the older girl and aspiring celebrity.

The American Girl Doll is one that young girls can relate to, to have a companion and a playmate. The doll also provides the girls a better education in American history to see an average American girl in times the girls would not otherwise relate to. Each doll comes with a story book, a journal if you will, and the bookstores have a copious amount of hardcover books about each doll with original pictures, where available, of the timeframe of the doll’s life. To give the girls more exposure to the history, a craft book of the toys and playthings of the doll’s time is also in the marketplace.

For those parents who have bought the dolls and their accessories, a day’s salary can be expected to be spent on them. Kirsten, Samantha and Molly were the first three girls to be launched. It cannot be denied that the doll has had an impact on young girls with stories that encourage them to follow their dreams, learn from history and provide a positive companion without the need to “play” the parent or shoot for a possibly unachievable vision of beauty and success.

Dolls have been a source of “play” and ceremony from very early in history. A doll is a human being or spirit being used in magic and religious rituals throughout the world. The earliest “doll” goes back to ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome. The earliest use of a doll as a toy can be traced to Greece around 100 AD. They were crude in some cases and elaborate in others. Dolls were made from available materials such as clay, stone, wood, bone, ivory, leather and wax being documented as the oldest known toy.

Like children today, dolls were dressed according to what was seen around them, their parents, grandparents and leaders of their village or town. Dolls have been used for education, carriers of cultural heritage, laden with magical powers, entertainment and, of course, the voo doo doll that held powers to change a person the doll was created to represent. I imagine some of my readers can remember the kitchen witch craze where a doll, dressed in the stereotypical outfit hung in the kitchens of the 20th century housewife.

Closer to home is the Hopi Kachina doll made of cottonwood that embodied the characteristics of the ceremonial Kachina, the masked spirits of the Hopi Native American Tribe in northwest America. For the Inuit people, the “dolls” were dressed in clothing that would take them through the cold winters while those of the Incas were associated with maize. Cornhusk dolls are a traditional Native American doll made obviously with leaves or husk of a corncob. These dolls did not have faces as they represented nature and the spirits of the Native Americans’ spiritual beliefs. The making of cornhusk dolls was adopted by the early European settlers in the colonies.

Wood was the predominant material for dolls until the 18th and 19th century when it was combined with other materials such as leather, wax and porcelain with the bodies made more articulate. It is unknown when glass eyes first appeared but brown was the color of choice until the Victorian era when blue eyes became popular, inspired by Queen Victoria. During the 19th century dolls’ heads were often made of porcelain and combined with a body of leather, cloth, wood and a composite material known as composition – a mix of pulp, sawdust, glue and similar materials.

Doll collectors of today are quick to correct the terms bisque, porcelain and china for dolls, as they are not the same. A china doll has a glazed porcelain head and a bisque doll is made of unglazed bisque porcelain. A true china doll has a white glazed porcelain head with painted molded hair and a body of cloth or leather and were popular between 1840 and 1890. A Parian doll’s head is made of white porcelain but not dipped in glaze and has a matte finish having their popularity between 1860 and 1880. Bisque doll’s faces are characterized by their realistic skin-like matte finish with their peak of popularity between 1860 and 1900.

The dolls most often collected are those from France and Germany with some maker’s dolls commanding very high prices. The maker’s mark is often found on the back of the head and true collectors know what to look for when purchasing a collectible doll. Initially, dolls were made to resemble adults but by the middle of the 19th century, the dolls took on childlike features.

No one can forget the lovable Raggedy Ann and her brother Andy, a soft huggable doll pair first introduced by Johnny Gruelle in 1918. These stories were geared to loving, caring and responsibility to each other and others as their adventures took them far and wide.

The Orange Historical Society recently held an American Girl Doll camp at the Stone-Otis House with 13 girls all toting their favorite dolls and backpacks full of clothes for each one. They were treated to three days of stories, crafts, history and snacks all geared to a selection of dolls provided by coordinator, Pat Lovelace from the Guilford Keeping Society. The culminating activity, which delighted them all, was a table full of Pat’s doll clothes that the girls could “borrow” and dress their own dolls. A doll has always been of importance in history but with the American Girl Doll, history is important to them.

The Stone-Otis house has a collection of porcelain dolls and will be open September 12 from 11:00 to 2:00 and again on the 3rd of October, same time. Admission for adults is $3.00 and children under 12 free. For information call 203-795-3106.

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