I have become a Scrooge to the American Girl corporation.
Living in Chicago, as an adult, it is easy to get annoyed by the whole store thing. The little girls who run around downtown, holding their beloved dolls in one hand while their parents lug big bags with the logo on it probably containing thousands of dollars of associated merchandise while their – often – yuppie and shallow seeming parents chat on their cell phones and carry their Starbucks around ignore their often bratty behavior can drive anyone crazy. In a day and age when every child is deemed special and, as such, placated and pampered to believe they are all princesses, it can get to be too much. You don’t want to be in the American Girl store anytime near Christmas, or you will hear screaming and tantrums and otherwise obnoxious things. And when we live in a world where people are struggling to get by, it’s hard to imagine spending hundreds of dollars on toys.
I think I got my ass “Christmas Caroled” by the Ghost of Christmas toys past….
Word broke this weekend that the American Girls company has decided to retire Samantha, one of the original three historical-based dolls that launched the company, as well as my first (and favorite) American Girl doll, and it felt I needed to say some things.
I saw my first American Girl catalogue when I was eight years old. It was known as the Pleasant Company back then, and I believe it was just a wee store in Minnesota. There were only three dolls at that time, and they were all set in a specific historical period to help little girls learn history while exploring their imaginations.
The dolls were Kirsten (a blonde pioneer immigrant girl who came to America from Sweden, I think), Molly (a plucky redhead who lived during World War 2) and Samantha (a spunky brunette from the turn of the century.) I was little and brunette, and from the moment I laid eyes on Samantha Parkington and all her pretty accessories – the birthday set, the summer set, the winter gear, the nightgown, the pretty brass bed – I wanted her.
Even then, an American Girl doll was expensive. Back then, the doll itself in it’s original set – which came with one outfit and a book, was $80. Lots of money for a kid.
According to my Mom (the only version of the story I trust) I brought the fact that I wanted this doll to her attention, but never asked for it. I busted out my pink pencil box, put it under my bed, and started saving money. I saved my allowance and any additional cash I could get my eight year old hands on into that box for almost a year, and a few weeks before Christmas handed the $80 to my mom and asked her to order it for me. Touched by the gesture and my childhood determination, my Mom took the money and then ordered the doll for me as her present to me. Or rather, as she remembers it, had to have it rush-ordered and then had to divery my attention the day we got home and the box was on the front porch so I wouldn’t see it ahead of time.
BUT, details aside, on Christmas morning, I opened a box to find my Samantha, resplendent in all her Victorian glory. I also got back my $80, and I’m sure I promptly spent it on dumb plastic things. I was eight, people.
The photos show my joy on that morning, and for the last 16 years, Samantha has been a key part of Alpena for me.
She no longer looks as gorgeous as she did when she came out of the box – her hair is massively matted and she’s missing eyelashes (and we had to send her back to the Pleasant Company toy hospital – yes, they have it – after one particularly nasty fall from the barn damaged her original head) but she’s been loved like no other toy from my childhood.
She’s ridden on both my dearly departed dog and horse. She’s climbed trees and been on swings. She’s been in forts. She’s been on trips. She sat at the dinner table for a few years with us. My mom found a pattern for “Sam-sized” clothes and proceeded to make her pretty dresses as well as overalls and jumpers for those days when a party dress isn’t going to cut it. She has a spa robe and slippers, an apron for helping in the kitchen, and – bonus of bonuses – once I realized she fit in my Cabbage Patch Doll clothes, a whole new world opened up. The Harrisville Art show, which takes place once a year in Harrisville, MI, features a woman who makes near-exact replicas of the doll clothes from American Girl and sells them for a fraction of the cost, and I remember many treks to that art show with the one-track mind of getting Sam a new outfit.
[SIDE NOTE: My mom, seeing my love for Samantha, decided to strike while the iron was hot and buy me a Kirsten doll to accompany Sam. I couldn't do it. Kirsten spent a few years locked up in a collectors cabinet, untouched by childhood hands, until one day - burdened by the guilt of seeing her under glass and lock and key and not being loved - I asked Mom if we could give her to someone else. My Mom listed her on ebay, and a grandmother bought Kirsten for her granddaughter, since they couldn't afford the retail cost of the doll. I'm sure she went to a good home, and I hope she's as loved and destroyed as my Samantha is.]
Now – in what I refer to as her retirement – she resides at home in Alpena on my bed, in a nightgown, robe, and slippers like the grand dame she is. Her matted hair has been twisted into a bun and is held there with a hairclip I totally stole from Mom. (Sorry!) In the back of my head, I’m fairly sure that, since no one goes into my loft bedroom room during the months I’m away from home, Samantha rules the roost like Woody from Toy Story.
The American Girl company has grown so much since I was eight. There are a bunch of other historical dolls now, of different ethnicities, and they have other branches as well – Bitty Babies, and the whole “make a doll that looks like you” thing going on. Their stores have theatres with live musicals and places you can have tea parties with your dolls. They’re making millions upon millions of dollars as a major part of a culture that now caters to young children, especially girls.
The reason for the retirement is being explained as due to the lack of “real estate” available in the American Girl catalogue anymore. Literally, they’re so full of products they can’t introduce new ones, so some classics are going to have to be retired – and Sam is the first. I expect Kirsten and Molly, and maybe Felicity to follow, and go to the land of memories.
I should really make more of an effort to remember myself at eight when I see little girls trotting around downtown, holding onto their parents with one hand and their beloved doll in the other.
I was them once.
Hell, I’m still them. It’s just that, at 26, you can’t really carry a doll around all the time with you anymore. Because, seriously, if I could get away with it….
I would say farewell to Samantha, but when I go home next month I’ll be saying hello all over again.