The American Girl Doll catalog arrived every season in all its over-sized, elegantly-laid-out, colorful glory, featuring three dolls, each of whom had a unique wardrobe, sets of accessories and a book series. The dolls represented a different point in American history, as reflected by her story, period clothing and accessories. I would spend hours poring over the catalog, marveling at each girl’s school lunch, bedroom set, play clothes and formal wear. The dolls themselves were displayed like Playboy centerfolds–spanning two pages, you had to turn the magazine ninety degrees to behold her full, upright glory, the artificial gleam in her eyes, her glossy hair and sweet smile, replete with two tiny front teeth poking out. I wanted one. I needed one. I suppose you could say the American Girl catalog was porn to my elementary school sensibilities. I spent hours alone in my room with it, engaging in endless fantasies about possessing the dolls.
When they added a fourth doll with red hair and green eyes, I went wild with longing. Disney’s The Little Mermaid had been released around the same time, and I wanted to be Ariel, to have her brilliant red hair. Now there was an American Girl doll kind of like Ariel? It felt like kismet. Two of my neighborhood buddies had three American Girl dolls between them, but this new one was something else. She was something they didn’t have, and if she could be mine…the uniqueness factor made me covet her that much more. It didn’t matter that she didn’t look like me, that there were two brunette dolls from which to choose. Something about owning her would help me transcend my hair color, and I would, by association (and imagination), have that flowing, glorious red Ariel hair. I became obsessed.
In my family, you didn’t receive “big ticket” gifts like $100 dolls outside a birthday or Christmas, if even then. I knew better than to ask for her outright before August or December, so I began setting up the ask, months in advance, hoping this tactic would warm my parents to the idea of the purchase. I talked about her. I showed them her picture in the catalog. I talked about how happy I would be if she was mine. I talked about how the neighbor girls had similar dolls and how much we loved playing with them together. I doubt any of this registered, considering the fact my mom was studying for her PhD and working evening shift and my dad was employed full time, taking care of the household and me. I sensed they weren’t grasping the importance of my need for the doll, and I ramped up my efforts, asking them to look closely at the pictures with me, pointing out each cute little set of extras, each outfit, always bringing it back to the doll. I thought that if perhaps I made it look like I was only asking for the doll, not the entire set of items, they might find my request reasonable and grant it. I dreamed, I hoped, I burned with anticipation and fierce jealousy of the neighbor girls’ dolls.
One day, I was resorting to more heavy-handed tactics in my quest to secure the doll when my dad cut short, and final, the progress I believed I was making. He flipped through to the back of the catalog, pointing out the clothing items for sale in girls’ sizes, offered so that you could dress to match your doll. Pointing to a fur-lined pair of boots that cost $150 he said, this is wrong. There are children in this country who don’t have winter boots and this company is selling luxury items to match with toys? Surely you can see the discrepancy between the lives of the people for whom this catalog was made, and those who must do without, he said. As a ten year-old, I felt shame wash over me, understanding my dad was lecturing me about the indignities and inequalities of our society. I shouldn’t want such an item, when I had more than enough compared to those less fortunate. Case closed. I wouldn’t be getting the doll, because he didn’t believe the company selling it had values that aligned with his own, the same values he was attempting to instill in me, his only child.
I was invited by my parents to save my money and purchase the doll myself. My dad explained that if the doll was important enough, I would be willing to work and save to attain her. A hundred dollars was a lot of money for a ten year-old who earned a five dollar a week allowance. But I saved. I offered to do extra chores around the house for extra money. I helped neighbors out with stuff around their houses, even creating a flier of services offered with a price list. They hired me, and I squirreled all the money away in a little cedar keepsake box.
My birthday went by, no doll. Christmas went by, no doll. I was starting sixth grade by the time I had the hundred scraped together. I was too old for dolls, and I knew it, but by this time it was the principle of the thing. I had spent the better part of a year busting my ass to afford her, wishing, waiting, fueled with bitter envy as I watched my friends’ collections grow, eagerly anticipating the day I could fill out the order form and send it in. I watched the neighbor girls open gifts of American Girl furniture, new outfits, mini-jewelry, and felt bile rise in my throat, tears of resentment begin to prick my eyes. They were amassing it all, and I didn’t yet have the first item.
I sat at the dining room table where I ceremoniously began the form, the day I reached one hundred. When I got to the product boxes I noticed a major discrepancy–the doll cost $100–but the outfit she was wearing in her centerfold, along with the accessories pictured, were going to cost an additional $50. I’d been hoodwinked. False advertising! I hadn’t read the fine print. What was the point of having her with none of the goods, not even the basics? I thought the hundred would at least get me a dress, shoes and her lunch set, since that’s what was pictured. It was no use. Sure, I could wait a few more months and amass more cash for the ornaments, but who was I kidding? I was too old for dolls. Thoroughly disgusted, I took the order form and ceremoniously threw it in the recycling bin. My dad looked on with pride.
Flash forward more than two decades, and I still feel a little tug at my heart when I see the American Girl catalog. I work at a place that grants wishes to children, and we’ve had more than one wish involve procuring items from that company. It seems today’s little girls remain as enthralled as I once was, and now the number of dolls, book series, accessories, play sets, and clothing items are staggering, way beyond what 1990 had to offer. You could lose yourself in the online store just creating a doll to look like you, or like you wish you looked.
A seven year-old girl made a wish to have an American Girl doll that looked like her, another new option since my day. Since I work in fundraising (I never got sick of setting up asks), I’m in the position of matching the donor up with the wish they granted, which meant in this case I was helping to plan a party where the donor could present the young lady with her doll. The donor was going to throw a fancy tea party, at which she’d be presented with a pile of American Girl swag, including the coveted doll.
The American Girl boxes began to arrive in the office. First the doll, with light brown skin, dark brown hair and eyes. Oooh! Then the doll-sized bed and bedding. Ahhh! Then the armoire with its drawers and hanging rod for clothing storage. And smaller boxes upon boxes of outfits, shoes, earrings, fairy wings, hair styling goods, a kitchen set, a tea set. I slit open each box, checking the order against the invoice, ensuring each item we had chosen had arrived. It was like the Christmas I never had, and I was getting more in one shot than the neighbor girls ever did, so long ago. I opened a plastic envelope and found a girl’s-sized party dress, identical to the doll’s, complete with matching headbands and silver sandals.
Dad, I smoothed out that pint-sized dress, thinking about the delight it would bring to the young lady wearing it to a surprise tea party, at which her wish would come true. I took the even tinier matching dress and put the doll into it, lovingly removing the rubber bands, twist-ties and tape that held her fast in her box. I removed her hairnet, smoothing out her gleaming locks, placing the mini-headband atop them. I slipped the tiny silver sandals onto her feet, and fit the metal doll stand around her waist. I stood her on the table, among the mountains of American Girl paraphernalia we had purchased to grant this child’s wish, and I felt myself coming full-circle.
You were right. I didn’t need the doll, or the clothes, or any of the accessory sets. The gift is in knowing that someone less fortunate than I will open a box and find her dream doll smiling up at her, wearing an identical party outfit in miniature. That I had the privilege of preparing the doll and all her marvelous embellishments for another little girl is something I will cherish for life, long after memories of playing with any doll would have ceased.