Friday, December 6, 2013


A Requiem for Molly, The "Archived" American Girl Doll

I’m not, strictly speaking, a Molly. I had a Samantha and a Kirsten, and both of them spoke volumes about who I wanted to be (privileged, so well dressed, urban) and who I was (Scandinavian, solidly built, rural). Chiara Atik has already written the definitive statement on what your doll says about you, and I don’t disagree with her assessment of Molly-owners:

If you had Molly, you probably wanted Samantha instead, but contented yourself with Molly because you too wore glasses, liked books, were bad at math, and would concoct various schemes to get attention. (Oh, Molly.) If you were a Molly, and had a Molly (as opposed to being a Molly and aspirationally owning a Felicity), you were imbued, then and now, with an immutable sense of self. At least Molly could tap dance, which is frankly more talent than any of the other girls exhibited.

Truth: Molly was the least showy and, at least of the original, lily-white, middle-class American dolls, the only one with any sort of class consciousness. It was a consciousness enforced by the war, but still, the book’s renderings of thrift were my introduction, other than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, to what it meant to sacrifice, and how to substitute the feelings of resentment with those of purpose and solidarity.

It was, of course, propaganda—the sort of retrospective rendering of World War II and the role of the greatest generation, and their children, within it that allows us to continue allocating money towards the military industrial complex, etc. etc. But in comparison to the equally ideological and nationalistic tales of Felicity, Kirsten, and Samantha, Molly suggested, somewhat ironically for a doll that costed over $100, that the key to survival and family happiness wasn’t consumption, but the lack thereof.

As children, we papered over that contradiction, lusting after the “simple party dress” that cost (our parents) $20. And I read all of Molly’s books, even if my devotion was reserved for Kirsten and Samantha. In some ways, I think of that devotion as a personal failing: an aversion to Molly’s glasses, I think, that said more about the crippling knowledge that I was a nerd and always would be than any identification with Samantha.

But my Grandmother Helen was an actual Molly. She was a young woman during the war, but she was Molly’s age during The Depression, and that experience—a second generation Norwegian-American, second sister of three, living in rural Minnesota and, along with her older sister, tending house and caring for her baby sister after her mother passed away—would inflect the rest of her life. She never had the privilege of going to college or had a career that would grant her a pension, and spent the last thirty years of her retired life scraping by on social security. When I obliviously asked for items from the glossy American Girl catalog, all above the Christmas budget she split between six grandchildren, she did what Molly would’ve done: she made them. 

My grandmother made me a fur muff for Samantha, an ACTUAL Scandinavian costume (as opposed to the cheap St. Lucia costume they sold for $20), bedding for both (why do dolls need beds, and why did I want someone I loved to pay for them?) She also taught me how to braid and pin Kirsten’s hair the way it actually would have been done and, you know, spent time with me which, at the time, I didn’t quite understand as just as valuable, if not more so, than a factory-knit set of faux-Scandinavian mini-mittens.

Grandma Helen was, after all, a Molly: she understood that time with loved ones was ultimately much more valuable than goods. She made what I thought I wanted, and she used it as an opportunity to spend more time with me.

The American Girl Company pretends like it’s about history, connection, and play, but those are all secondary and incidental to the primary goal of compelling young girls to desire as many goods as possible. Molly’s narrative provided a rupture to that narrative of celebrated consumption in a way that the original doll’s stories did not, which is part of the reason I’m so surprised that Kirsten and Samantha both went into the vault before Molly. But logistics of doll “retirement,” in which the company compels young girls into buying a soon-to-be rarified product, tantalizing them with its unavailability, and then reintroduces her to great acclaim, are so in keeping with the war-time black market, so blatantly anti-Molly, that the whole process revolts and disappoints me in a way that the retirement of Samantha never did.

I know Molly’s just a doll. But those of us who’ve owned or coveted American Girl dolls know better: she’s a message, an attitude, a way of being in the world. You might not have endured World War II deprivation, but you were attracted, for whatever reason, to its dynamics. Maybe it was the simplicity, maybe it was the unity. Maybe it was because Molly’s personality somehow seemed to matter more than what she owned or didn’t. The doll was a commodity, but Molly’s narrative so conveniently made you forget it.

I wish I could’ve just been happy to sit next to my Grandmother and sew or do puzzles or make lefse. But capitalism inculcated me otherwise, which is why I not only wanted an American Girl Doll in the first place, but wouldn’t be satisfied with one. But even if I didn’t have a Molly, I had a Grandmother who subtly modeled her values, which, ultimately, was far more instructive than a doll and her six stories. The problem, then, and the real reason I’m mourning, isn’t that Molly is retired: it’s that my Grandmother, and the rest of her generation, is gone.


Previously: Internet Work and Invisible Labor: An Interview With the Fug Girls

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here, and you can read the Scandals of Classic Hollywood series here.

61 Comments / Post A Comment


I love this, Anne. Between Molly and reruns of Hogan's Heroes, it's amazing I ever was able to digest a realistic idea of WW2, but I would think of her every time my grandmother talked about being a little girl during the war.

I had a Kirsten and an Addy, the later of which spared me the embarrassment of being the white girl who always wanted to touch black hair. I was good. I had an Addy.


Good work Its beautiful... @n


This is great but "that costed over $100" is driving me insane. Cost! COST!




I wanted Molly. I looked like Molly. I never wanted any other doll (or toy) more. She was my spirit animal. I'm unreasonably upset about this.

Julie the T

@large__marge YES. I never wanted Samantha - she was spoiled and stuck up. Molly stood for regular people, and smart girls, and families who had to pull together during tough times. MOLLY 4 EVA.


I had a Samantha, but I read and re-read those Molly books so many times. (My sister was blond, so she got Kirsten). Like Anne, all my accessories were also home-made (or bought from craft sales). My dad made my doll bed and my mom taught me how to sew to make her clothes. It makes me so sad to see the historical dolls get tossed aside. The whole point of them for me was to read the stories and learn the history!


@MandyAnne The Molly books were the best. I read the one where she goes to camp so many times despite having 0 interest in going to camp myself.


@SmartCookie that is SO Molly of you to say.


I got a little choked up at the end of this. My grandmother is of the same generation, and still here thankfully. I've noticed her and my grandfather have the traits of growing up during the depression and then the war.
I had a Felicity doll (horse girl/red head here) and the best items I had for her were handmade by friends of my mom. These craftsmen made me lovely doll beds and tiny clay tea sets that lasted far longer than any of the crap from the AG Magazine.
I did love my doll though, but more than anything, the AG series got me into history. I loved the books and the sections at the end that were devoted to the history behind the story. The magazine was great too. There was a story in what I think was the first issue on foot-binding in China. The young girl narrator learns about the practice from her grandmother, whose feet were bound when she was younger. It was difficult to read, but something I would have never read about anywhere else. It's sad to think that girls today only get the lessons of consumerism from AG, now that most of the historical dolls have been retired.


@JLA Oh the magazine was so great, I completely forgot about that! Always such good stories and profiles about girls and women, and I remember I loved the crafts they came up with. Plus it was really educational about health and growing up without a whisper of body shaming or "all girls must do XYZ" stuff. Anyone know if it's still around? Probably has been Mattel-ified even if it is :(


@JLA That foot binding story is one of the few concrete things from the magazine that I remember. I know I devoured it every time it showed up, but that story gave me nightmares and inspired my deepest most irrational childhood fear: hands reaching out from under the bed and binding my feet. But yes, the history was why I loved the dolls and the books and the magazine and, picking a catalog up last week, it was depressing how that's all been shunted to the last few pages.


@JLA I also remember the foot binding story from the first issue!

Much of my AG stuff was from craft fairs, and I used to live for going to fairs with my mom just for the chance to rummage through the tiny racks of clothes.


@NellyBly I'm not sure if it is still around. I found this: http://americangirloutsider.blogspot.com/2013/05/magazine-monthly-1992-premiere-issue.html
Looking through that post, I realized how great the magazine was and that there were no ads at first! Still, I think the red, white and blue style section had a bit too much of an impact on me.

Love the name BTW. Nellie Bly is one of my favorite people from history!


@caset That's terrible! The story was haunting and some pretty heavy material for a kids magazine.


@TheLetterL It's interesting how many good memories come from these dolls. Every time an article on them is posted, I look forward to comments like yours and others that share memories. I guess I never realized how many people had them when they were young.


@JLA @TheLetterL : Yes! The magazine still exists, but I tend to think it is inferior to the girl's magazine called New Moon Girls. I'm a children's librarian, and I see that the problems with women's magazines also trickle into girl's magazines ("How to be your best you!" "Give yourself a makeover!"). That's why I love New Moon Girls (check out their website here: http://www.newmoon.com/). They do profiles of girls who live all around the world, they encourage girls to draw and write poetry (and then send it in to be published!), they talk shamelessly about periods, they are 100% advertising free...I could go on. It's wonderful. For those of you with a a humanitarian bent, you can also volunteer to be a fact-checker or guest blogger!!


@cocokins Neat! I'm saving that site because it would be a great idea for a kiddo I know.


@JLA I am *SO* glad that New Moon still exists. I also got AG as a kid, but there was something so special about New Moon. I'll never forget a story in the late nineties from a girl in Iraq, who talked about the impact of sanctions on children there. I wrote an angry letter to Bill Clinton about how I liked him as a president but he needed to end the sanctions. That's probably a big part of why I studied international relations in college.

I could go on about how amazing New Moon is forever, suffice it to say that every girl should have a subscription.

Julie Anderson Horn@facebook

@JLA New Moon Magazine is a wonderful publication! So glad it's still around! I'm a grandmother now, and have been away from the children's toy/book marketplace for a bit...but as my babies grow, I'm being reintroduced to some old favorites!
My girls had the first edition of the American Girl dolls, which they LOVED...Kirsten, Samantha, Molly, "Bitty Baby", and....another one that wasn't Felicity or Addy (although my youngest had ALL of the mini-dolls....no problem with consumerism here, I'm afraid!)I bought them for my girls back then because they came with the historical books, and because the emphasis was on strength of character, and because they were developed by a woman, Pleasant Rowland, and were not being pushed on TV in annoying commercials with obnoxious jingles and equally obnoxious children exuding fake enthusiasm and dancing around with their dolls. It broke my heart when Ms. Rowland sold to Mattell, because the future was so predictable. I haven't paid much attention to the new editions, because as my girls have become mothers themselves, their daughters are playing with the old dolls and the accessories that have held up quite well. Funny, though, Molly was the one least played with, for whatever reason. Maybe it was all of that good sense she had...not nearly as exciting as collecting all of the "stuff"...:)


Completely splendid article.


I loved my Molly doll so much that I named my little sister after her (although my little sister actually looks like Molly and I don't). My parents were not at all into my American Girl obsession, so they made me save up half of the cost (I think they cost ~80-90 ish at the time), but it was so worth it.

My sisters and I all eventually got the AG dolls made to look like you, but I never loved mine as much I loved Molly.


@bananapants My parents also made me save up half the cost of Molly. I remember it was $44, because I kept a chart in my room to track my progress. FYI, $44 was a heck of a lot of window washing and furniture dusting in my house, I tell you what.

eva luna


I somehow ended up with three of them, but I bought one and a half of them (probably with money from my grandmothers). I had Felicity, Samantha and one that "looked" like me. I eventually got new heads for Felicity and Samantha and they look brand new. So I guess my hypothetical future children will just be inheriting mine.


@bananapants I was pretty sure that the three OG AG dolls were in the $80 price range, and not "costed over $100," when I was a youngun (mid-80's).

I also kept a chart of my savings toward an AG doll. They were going toward Kirsten, and the chart was made from the two-page centerfold of her in the Pleasant Company catalog with a fundraising thermometer drawn on it with Sharpie; "$88!" being the goal.

I made a pretty good copy of her bed in my dad's workshop and even learned how to Tole paint it, but never did get the doll. Turns out my parents hit some hard times and they secretly spent the Kirsten fund. In my Molly-esque adulthood I've come to understand and forgive what they had to do, but I will never forget falling asleep every night in Kindergarten with pictures of Kirsten under my pillow and dreams of tiny St Lucia crowns <3


Oh I just love this!


I also had mostly handmade clothes my American Girl doll. My parents bought the doll (reluctantly, I had to agree to not get any other Christmas presents that year) but they were not about to buy all of those clothes.

I also just did the math and my American Girl doll is 22 or 23 this year. Jesus. (We only had 3 to choose from! She only cost $80! Whippersnappers!)


I really loved this - of course I did.

But I also found it interesting because, well, I had a Samantha. And I guess I am kind of a Samantha, if only because I also spent my childhood cocooned in privilege.

But what sticks with me about Samantha is not the fur muff (although my Molly grandmother also made my Samantha doll a muff - AND an opera coat, among other ridiculous costumes) but rather that her books were my introduction to class consciousness, privilege, and feminism. Without Samantha, would I have been prepped for the Mitfords? (Probably, yes, because I read a lot. But those books were certainly my earliest exposure.)

Anne Helen Petersen

@Lucienne Someone just pointed this out to me on Facebook and I'm astonished by how little of that stayed with me: *all* I cared about was Samantha's muff and beautiful hair; now I'm remembering a bit of "oh there's poor people," but it was more subtle and, as a result, easier for me to apparently completely forget. I don't blame Samantha, per se (luv u Sam) so much as myself.


@Lucienne That's interesting! I found Nellie's stories about working in a factory extremely traumatic.

The stuff about race slipped by me though - I only remembered it about fifteen minutes ago when I started clicking around on the American Girls Wiki.

Lisa Frank

@Lucienne I loved, loved this article so much! And I totally agree that the themes of the books, which did introduce me to labor rights and feminism (among other things), were over-shadowed by the consumerism encouraged by the catalog.
But I also identified with Samantha more than Molly. Maybe it was because my grandparents stories were about surviving the war in Europe, I didn't have the same frame of reference about the home front. And seeing a spoiled young girl begin to grow a social conscience was much closer to my own experience (and something I'm glad I was exposed to at that age.)


I had Kirsten and Felicity. I would say that Kirsten did her fair share of sacrificing as well. I don't know that I ever really identified with the characters, but I loved reading about them. I definitely wanted to be as brave as Felicity. I did learn to pin curl my hair by reading about Molly, though.

Nancy Sin

Oh Molly! I think of my grandmother too, and I remember asking her if she had a victory garden and SHE DID and I was so excited.

Also, it wouldn't be an American Girl article if I didn't mention my grief over accidentally giving away Kirsten AND HER BED by mistake when my mom donated some old dressers.

Julie Anderson Horn@facebook

@Nancy Sin Oooohh...that must be a trauma that is still with you!


I'm crying in public at a Panera which is pretty embarrassing. I loved Molly and her books. Those stories stuck with me. In fact, I was thinking about the mashed turnips she had to eat earlier today. I can see my grandma and great grandma bent over her sewing table together, making tiny dresses for my AG dolls. I miss her so much it's like a punch in the gut.



secret fact: mashed turnips are actually quite good, especially if you mash some butter or milk or chives in there.

lucy snowe

American Girl Dolls must have existed when I was young, but I only became aware of them when I was in high school or college and my mom put together a fashion show of American Girl Dolls and their owners in companion outfits as a fundraiser for a camp for girls with diabetes.

I remember feeling that I would have loved one, if my parents ever would have spent the money. I wished that was my aspirational doll, not those freaky looking Cabbage Patch Kids (which, when I finally got one, after the initial craze was past, inspired nothing but a strange vicarious buyers remorse.)


This is a beautiful piece. And it sits close to home for me - I got Samantha for Christmas (she was the most aspirational!) along with her little extra box of accessories. And never got another item from the catalogue. My mom scoured craft shows for outfits, my beloved grandpa made her a bed (with a heart cut-out in the headboard), my little brother made her a desk and chair from scraps of wood he collected at a nearby building site, and I covered old shoeboxes with fancy wrapping paper for her "trunks." We Molly'd it up big time, and I would rather have my weird but made-with-love collection than the complete set of $35 outfits and $150 pieces of furniture from the catalogue any day.


This is wonderful, but mostly commenting to say: LEFSE!!!

Becky Lang

I don't think most people who had Molly actually wanted Samantha. Can people stop saying that? It's not like our parents were like you need to get the doll w/ glasses from World War II. They were just glad we didn't want Baywatch Barbie or whatever. And this essay was very good also thanks bye.

Tragically Ludicrous

I had (and wanted) Molly because even though she wasn't Jewish, she at least felt a little more like she could be, and she didn't feel quite as prissy as Samantha. (Now they have an actual Jewish one so I probably would have gotten that.)

Miss Sparrow

Oh man, so many thoughts about this. This will be the 23rd anniversary of the Christmas I received Molly, which remains perhaps the pinnacle of my life. At that time I was really "too old" for dolls and I both didn't care and was very careful not to share this fact with many people. For years, it seems, my and my sister's (she had Samantha) life revolved around American Girls. I'm sure AG is at least 20% of the reason I ended up in grad school studying US history (the other 80% being some combination of Little House, Betsy-Tacy, Sunfire Romances, and Childhoods of Famous Americans biographies). Molly is looking down on me from her spot on the bookshelf as I write this. My little mascot!


I just went to look at their current historical dolls, and one of the new ones is from the War of 1812. If they'd had her when I was a kid maybe I would actually have some idea what the War of 1812 was about.

DeeDee Halleck@facebook

Very touching article. As a long time grandma, we need all the appreciation we can get.


As both a former Molly girl and a decent-to-middling tap dancer, this news hurts my heart, just a little. I really detest what the American Girl brand has become over the last decade or so.

P.S. your Grandma sounds awesome. :)


This felt so familiar to me--I also had a grandma who lived in rural Minnesota and was a second-generation Norwegian. She did not make me American Girl accessories, though--one of my cousins had a handmade set of Kirsten's "winter accessories" made by her mom and I was so jealous.

Samsul Plur@facebook

This felt so familiar to me--I also had a grandma who lived in rural Minnesota and was a second-generation Norwegian. She did not make me American Girl accessories, though--one of my cousins had a handmade set of Kirsten's "winter accessories" made by her mom and I was so jealous.cara menginstall windows


What is it about AG dolls that makes us so emotional? I love my Kirsten doll with a fierceness that is reserved only for her. I loved her little winter coat, and her ice skates, and her school bench and her weird little school food. These were always gifts from my "rich" family members, because hot damn! Those clothes and accessories were expensive!

I have to ashamedly admit that when my mom got me handmade craft-fair clothes for her, I secretly scoffed at them. I hardly ever put her in them because I thought they were inferior. What a turd I was.


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Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

American Girls weren't even on my radar at all during my childhood (because I'm Canadian?) but this piece was so, so great. AHP, you can write like nobody's business. I'm gonna hug my grandmother so much tomorrow.


I had Samantha and Felicity, but both of them were used, which was totally fine for my 9-year-old self who couldn't care less. I don't think I would ever have had AG dolls if we didn't find them used. I found Samantha free in an old thrift shop, and I remember my dad worked so hard to clean her face and hair. It's a nice memory :) I always wanted Molly, though. And I wanted glasses SO BAD because of her.

As much as I hate commercialism, I don't understand why it would be any better to chastise a company who created these wonderful dolls and worlds for them just because they want to sell more items. Is that not the goal for every store? Yes, the prices are too high, but I wouldn't say they're making little girls addicted. It's the parents' responsibility to teach their children how to deal with not being able to afford everything you really want.
Anyways, your Grandma sounds absolutely lovely and very caring; I hope to be like that with my future children and grandchildren!


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Allison Gray@facebook

I really only had a Samantha doll because she had dark hair, and I had very blonde hair. I wanted any kind of doll and worshipped any celebrity, when I was a kid, that had dark hair that looked the complete opposite of me. I think I learned to loathe myself at a very young age.

Tran Tran

As much as I hate commercialism, I don't understand why it would be any better to chastise a company who created these wonderful dolls and worlds for them just because cá betta rồng they want to sell more items. Is that not the goal for every store? Yes, the prices are too high, but I wouldn't say they're making little girls addicted. It's the parents' responsibility to teach their children how to deal with not being able to afford everything you really want.
Anyways, your Grandma sounds absolutely lovely and very caring; I hope to be like that with my future children and grandchildren!


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279th District Court

Sometimes I think my parents decided both to start calculating my weekly allowance as a fake bank account and quietly, discreetly closed my account without a proper payout, because of mine and my sister's obsession with American Girl Dolls (Samantha for me, Felicity for her). I have always appreciated the very basic lesson in finance and balancing a checkbook, however, not to mention the concept of "job performance" being tied directly to "salary". Also, we did not receive nearly as much of an allowance as, reading this back, this whole story makes it sound. Then again, I could afford to save up for AG doll stuff, so, how much of a leg do I really have to stand on here?

Grace Anne Boucher@facebook

Okay. I'm going to be the asshole who points out that Molly isn't actually archived. She's available from AG. The archived dolls are Kirsten, Samantha, Nellie, Felicity, and Elizabeth.
Yes, I know that I put too much effort into this. It's late, and I'm in that crazy place that comes for zero sleep.
Apart from that, this is a lovely article.


@Grace Anne Boucher@facebook
I am late to the party, yes, but never mind that. Let me be the non-buttwad who points out your error. Earlier this year it was announced by American Girl that Molly, Emily, and the rest of Molly's collection would be archived as of 31 December 2013. It's been on the website, "Say goodbye to Molly and Emily" for months. As of tomorrow, she will no longer exist, and she's been sold out for a while (as has Emily) - she sold out about the time you posted this. So yes, she is being archived, and yes, it was announced ages ago.

Princess Gigglyfart

The first time I ever said, "You didn't even read the books!" I was talking about American Girl dolls.

I loved loved loved them. My friends had the dolls and I didn't, but I read every single book and had strong opinions about what kind of things the dolls wanted to do when we were playing.

Molly was my favorite. (the one where she goes to camp!)

Anyways, great article. I'm crying about your grandmother.

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