Step back in time (and down nostalgia lane) and walk in the steps of the original American Girl Dolls.
Like most ‘90s kids, American Girls were a big, BIG part of my childhood. I read all the books, had a doll (Samantha, duh), and went to AG-themed parties. You name it. I was a fan. And the cool thing about American Girls, while not based on one historical figure, is that the books and characters are based on real events and eras in American history. The stories don’t shy away from adult topics like addiction, grief, or the horrifying lack of child labor laws in 1904. Those stories have stayed with me into adulthood.
So when American Girl dropped its 35th-anniversary collab with Stoney Clover Lane last year, my inner child astral projected, stole my credit card, and purchased an ungodly amount of packing cubes. It took me down a much-needed memory lane and got me thinking about the OG six–No, Kit does not count!–and where they would have lived in America. Was Maryville real? And what about Grandmary’s mansion? The folks at Mattel were kind enough to answer my very specific, enthusiastic questions about these discontinued dolls and I was able to pinpoint the real-life towns and attractions that inspired each story. Behold: Mini vacation itineraries for the entire OG lineup. Or string them all together for The Great American (Girl Doll) Road Trip.
Top Picks for You
It all starts with Felicity Merriman. Well, technically, it didn’t. The original Pleasant Company started with Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly, but for this flashback road trip we’re going in historical order which is how the highly-coveted catalogs were organized. Does that make sense for gas mileage? Or the length of the trip? Hell, no. Hope you have a month of PTO because this literary journey is 76 hours and 5,000 miles long. The ‘90s AG catalog is law.
So, Felicity. This girl was rad. I loved that she hated wearing dresses. And I found it funny that the meanest, most popular girls in class–the ones who always had the latest clothes from Limited Too and were allowed to shave their legs at eight years old–loved Felicity. Had they bothered to read the books, they’d know Felicity was far too independent for their insecure conformity.
Plan Your Visit
Felicity’s stories take place in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1774 and her colonial history inspired the whole doll and book empire to come. AG founder Pleasant Rowland was inspired to create the original American Girls Collection after visiting the Colonial Williamsburg living history museum in 1984. To pay homage to Felicity, you have to head to the tourist trap yourself. So just go all in, baby. Take a nighttime lantern tour. Attend a mock trial and sentence a witch to death. Stay in a colonial house complete with a canopy bed just like Felicity’s. In the spring, there are even lambs on site. Yes, a field of Posies. Though any true stan knows Penny the horse is the supreme.
Josefina Montoya is a badass. Remember that rattlesnake?! What I loved about the Josefina series is that American Girl unapologetically peppered tons of Spanish words in the chapters and then provided a glossary in the back of each book so you had to look them up and learn. What I did not love (and to this day am still disturbed by) is Josefina’s dad marrying her aunt after her mom died. And Josefina encouraged it. I get the whole marriage for taxes thing, but Tía Dolores and Papá loved each other.
Plan Your Visit
Josefina’s stories are set in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1824 before America invaded and purchased part of Mexico so she’s a soon-to-be American Girl. Or a Mexican Girl who lives through a war and becomes an American Woman? There are a lot of different cultures in Josefina’s stories, from relatives who are still in Mexico City to the occasional Pueblo Native American nearby. And unlike other series about white girls, American Girl worked with a board of eight advisors from New Mexico and Arizona schools, museums, and historical societies to authenticate the subject matter and representation. According to Mattel, the El Rancho de los Golondrinas living history museum was a huge inspiration for Josefina’s family rancho. And La Hacienda De Los Martinez in nearby Taos is another must-stop as it would have been along the Camino Real, or the road Abuelito would have taken to travel between Mexico City and Josefina’s rancho in the books.
Yes, the #cottagecore aesthetic is fire. But, damn, Kirsten Larson’s story is bleak. Not to mention the terror of catching cholera. One day Kirsten’s friend Marta is fine. Twenty-four hours later, she’s carried off the boat in a coffin. Because, yes, they had pre-made child coffins on standby. And to comfort herself, Kirsten tries to do her grandma’s cute little trick about remembering that whenever you see the sun, it’s the same sun we all see so no one is ever truly alone. Heartwarming, right? But when she looks up to the sky, it’s too cloudy to see the sun. Because she is alone and Marta is dead. It’s pretty hardcore. And that’s just the beginning of Kirsten’s story. There are a lot of chapters about xenophobia that follow.
Plan Your Visit
Kirsten’s story is set in 1854 in the Minnesota Territory or what is now most of Minnesota and part of Wisconsin. Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum in Eagle, Wisconsin, inspired the appearance of Kirsten’s fictional town of Maryville. However, author Valerie Tripp said the American Girl team didn’t choose a specific town for Kirsten’s story. “The little towns in Wisconsin and Minnesota that were settled by Scandinavians were what we had in mind,” she said. And some of those little towns such as Historic Forestville, Scandia (especially the Gammelgården Museum), or Lindström, Minnesota still exist today. The latter is a must at Christmastime to experience Swedish traditions just like Kirsten’s family in the books.
If you thought Kirsten’s story arc was intense, buckle up for Addy Walker. Because OMG the adversity. The horrors of slavery in America are typically portrayed in media as brutal violence, and while there is physical violence in Addy’s story, what will stick with me forever is the psychological and emotional torture that author Connie Porter somehow wrote in a way that children could understand and empathize. The worms. I’m talking about the worms. In short, Addy is forced to eat a worm by a slavemaster and the scene is so visceral and disturbing it shook me to my little nine-year-old core. And while some things do work out for Addy, it’s not a happily ever after just because she escapes. Life off the plantation continued to prove obstacles for Addy’s family and that second act of the story has stayed with me.
Plan Your Visit
All American Girl books have a metaphorical journey, but Addy’s series is also a literal journey as her books follow Addy and her mother’s escape from a plantation in North Carolina to Philadelphia in 1864. Author Connie Porter, historical advisors, and the American Girl team visited historic sites in Philadelphia while developing Addy’s story, and the Society Hill neighborhood had a heavy hand in shaping the locations. You can walk the same squares today with this free tour guide from the Society Hill Civic Association. Don’t miss Washington Square and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
And then there was Samantha Parkington. No contest: She was, is and will forever be the best American Girl doll. You can’t top that brass bed. Someone should win an award for that brass bed. But in terms of a character arc, Samantha’s story is pretty shallow compared to her fellow American Girls. Yes, she’s an orphan. And that’s sad. But she has Grandmary and they live in a beautiful mansion. And she even has access to higher education. In 1904. I don’t think Samantha is a shallow person. She’s compassionate, wants to be the first female president, and when she learns about poverty and factories that are super dangerous, she puts her whole heart into helping her friend Nellie. (And Nellie’s story is capital-T tragic. She earned those spin-off books.) But, unlike obstacles in the other character series, these major hardships Samantha encounters aren’t firsthand. It’s observed from a nine-year-old one-percenter. Still, that brass bed was so cool.
Plan Your Visit
Samantha was marketed as a Victorian-era girl, but, technically her stories take place in the Edwardian era. However, most of Samantha’s doll accessories are Victorian in style as well as Grandmary’s mansion in the fictional town of Mt. Bedford, New York. You can see the real-life Victorian home that inspired Grandmary’s pad in the real-life town of Mt. Kisco, New York. And if you’re more town, less country, the Inn at Irving Place is a solid stand in for
Uncle Gardner and Aunt Cornelia’s posh NYC brownstone. It doesn’t have a Gramercy Park view (it’s a 10-minute walk) or marble steps like their home, but it does have a Victorian parlor and rooms with–you guessed it!–a brass bed.
Molly McIntire is my least favorite American Girl. She’s kind of a mean girl, tbh. She snaps at her family, tries to control her best friends, and tends to make things about herself. Remember when she wrote that letter to her dad asking why he hadn’t sent them Christmas presents while he was busy being, you know, abroad for WW2? But thinking about her character now as an adult with my own mental health to treat, it’s so obvious that Molly has severe anxiety and clinical depression. She’s internalizing a lot of general stress about the war, but Molly also personally struggles with self-esteem, from performance anxiety at school to some serious body dysmorphia. I feel for Molly. She’s doing her best in 1944 where apparently it’s totally normal to force a child to sit at the kitchen table for four hours because they won’t eat turnips.
Plan Your Visit
Chicago suburb Evanston (home to Northwestern University) was the inspiration for Molly’s fictional town of Jefferson, Illinois. There’s even an actual Oak Avenue with little parks and coffee shops. And if you go, the Evanston History Center offers city walking tours (Don’t miss Grosse Point Lighthouse) and the city beaches along Lake Michigan have a great view of Chicago. The water is perfect for summer boating a la Camp Gowonagin.