WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- A dozen little girls in dust caps clutch dolls in dust caps, and their excitement threatens to burble over the boxwood borders of this hidden garden.
In the shelter of trees that might date from the Revolutionary War, Mistress Laura, their guide, takes a moment to instruct these young ladies in the respectful "courtesies" they will need to offer when meeting citizens of rank in the dusty streets of this Colonial town.
"Ah, Mistress Jessica," she says to one of the little girls in her tour as she pulls at the corners of her long, gathered skirt and bends her knees to demonstrate a greeting.
"You are from the Colony of Maryland? Did you come by horse? trust you had gentlemen escorts, for it can be a dangerous journey."
What say you, Mistress Laura? Gentlemen escorts? We think not. Not for spunky, sprightly girls full of energy and independence. Not for girls like Felicity.
Felicity is an American Girls doll, conceived in the imagination of a doll maker named Pleasant Rowland and now alive in the minds of the 10-year-old girls who have made a pilgrimage here for "Felicity in Williamsburg: An American Girls Experience." It is a tour of this restored town as Felicity would have seen it.
The tour is adorable, the latest triumph in the brilliant marketing of a set of heirloom-quality dolls and the books of historical fiction that tell their stories: World War II Molly, Victorian Samantha, pioneer Kirsten, Colonial Felicity and Civil War-era Addy, a runaway slave.
The names of these dolls are more common on the lips of elementary-school girls than the names of friends on a sleep-over guest list.
But the American Girls phenomenon goes far deeper than the usual love affair between girls and their dolls.
Pleasant Rowland is onto something that touches the heart and satisfies the yearnings of the modern mother.
With the dolls, there can be the tender play these mothers remember from their own girlhood. And in the books, there is history with women and girls as participants instead of only as spectators and hearth keepers.
Felicity and her friends are girls of intelligence, strength and spirit. They are thoughtful and courageous, and, poised on periods of significant change, they take the challenges as they ,, come. In the plucky independence of these 10-year-old heroines, mothers see the gumption that can inspire their daughters.
"I want this for her," says Joyce Lisbeth of Warrenton, Va., as she watches 9-year-old Laura chase a hoop with a stick just as Felicity might have done. She crosses her arms to punctuate her declaration. In the crook of her elbow rests her daughter's doll, Felicity.
A doll empire
Ten years ago, Pleasant Rowland was dismayed to find nothing but Barbies and Cabbage Patch dolls to buy for her nieces and set about using the money she earned writing elementary textbooks to correct this. Her Middleton, Wis., mail-order company has since sold 3 million dolls and 35 million books.
In 1986, we met Samantha Parkington, Molly McIntire, and Kirsten Larson. Felicity Merriman arrived in 1991, and in 1993 Addy Walker, who makes a new life in freedom, was introduced. Drawing nearly as much attention and commentary as Colin Powell's autobiography, Addy's books hit the children's best-seller lists.
These dolls are now an empire.
To go with the stories of each girl's adventures in politics, family life, school and friendship, you can buy more than $1,000 in accessories and artifacts that might have been copied from the pages of a museum catalog. But you won't find American Girls dolls in the aisles of Toys 'R' Us, and you won't see their faces on lunch boxes or T-shirts. Rowland guards her vision of %J innocent girlhood tightly behind a privately held company that had more than $200 million in sales last year. Though the 30 novels are available in book stores and even discount stores, the dolls and their stuff can be bought only through one of the 38 million catalogs mailed each year.
And there is plenty of stuff in those catalogs to feed the acquisitive nature of little girls who love to daydream over wish lists: six sets of clothes and gear, skin and hair-care sets, luggage, maps and calendars, bedroom furniture, school desks and birthday-party tables.
You can order miniature dolls for the dolls, and the miniature dolls can have their own miniature books.
There are craft kits and theater kits and paper dolls and cookbooks, a magazine with a circulation of 600,000. There is a library of advice and activity books. A line of girl-sized period clothing: nightgowns and day dresses, party frocks and separates.
The dolls' educational and charitable ventures are flourishing, too.
Like Felicity, Kirsten has her own, though more modest, tour of an existing Swedish history museum near the Twin Cities, and Pleasant Co. hopes to establish living museums for each of the dolls.
A "historical society," begun this spring, already has 30,000 members, who work on the equivalent of Girl Scout badges in American history (it even includes "lesson plans" for mother). And a classroom curriculum based on the dolls' historical experiences is in place in several thousand elementary schools.
Organizations have used the fashion show kits to raise more than $2.2 million for children's charities, and the new "Samantha Ice Cream Social" kits should fare as well.
Buy just a doll and her first book and it is expensive -- $82 -- but not exclusive, when you consider that the average Barbie owner has nine Barbies at about $13 each. American Girls cost not much more than a video game or a computer game, and surveys done by Pleasant Co. indicate the owners of the dolls are not only little rich girls.
And, if imitation is the mark of success, the American Girls are a market leader. There are more than a billion Barbies out there, but Mattel felt a pea under its mattress and has started to dress Barbie in historical clothing and package her with teeny, tiny little books.
"Based on the success of the American Girls dolls, we saw that little girls were interested in history," said Mattel spokeswoman Lisa McKendall. "We thought we could be involved in this."
In a move that had some mothers wrinkling their noses in distaste, Pleasant Co. introduced the American Girl of Today doll last year. She comes in 20 ethnic flavors and is outfitted as if she stepped out of the mall, not the pages of history. She comes with backpack, bunk beds, in-line skates, scuba gear and a backyard barbecue complete with umbrella table and Weber grill.
What Felicity and her friends don't have, however, are breast implants, a foot deformed by spike heels, a spandex wardrobe or a dim boyfriend in the passenger seat of a pink Corvette. The American Girls dolls are the antidote for the Barbie bad body image backlash. Felicity and her friends have round cheeks and straight legs and are a little thick through the middle. They look like 10-year-old girls.
"We are not in the doll business. We're in the business of little girls," Rowland once explained.
"Our whole essence is holding off that onslaught of mass culture trying to sexualize little girls too early."
Mothers and daughters
Market researchers warned Rowland that she couldn't sell a mass market doll for more than $40, but she believed the educational link with the books would appeal to baby-boomer parents.
She was right.
"Part of the success is the books," says Christa Shuler, of Springfield, Mo., taking the Felicity tour with her 8-year-old Rebecca. "I would rather buy her an American Girls book than a Baby-sitters Club book. It is reading, but it is also learning."
Learning not just about history, but about girls like themselves who were just awakening to the fact that they have their own place in the family and in the community.
In the words of one of the authors, "they are girls who are acting on the world."
The girls are set in time, but in timeless situations. They must make choices about honesty, loyalty, friendship, family and patriotism. Their dilemmas are very like the ones faced by modern 10-year-old girls, and Felicity and her friends make the kind of value-based choices American mothers want their daughters to make.
This mix of wholesome doll play and vibrant self-esteem are the things that drive the real American Girls market: the mothers. Though their daughters want what the neighbor girl has ("I like the stories, but the dolls are cool because everyone has one," says Erin Hays in her Felicity party dress), it is the mother who phones the catalog 800 number with her credit card in hand.
"The dolls can satisfy the new mother along with the new daughter," says Cathleen Gray, associate professor of social work at Catholic University, whose daughter owns all four dolls.
"We want our daughters to identify with the spunky girl, not the sex object doll, all breasted and lean," she says. "That's what we mothers are trying to do for our daughters."
The core of the dolls' success is this chemistry between the determined mother and the suggestible daughter.
Marilyn Davis of Cockeysville wanted an African-American doll for her daughter, Allison, 10. Addy is that, but she is more.
"I wanted my daughter to have something to represent where we came from," Davis says. "Something popular, but something that was more." She agrees with the criticism that the Addy books make slavery seem like just a bad patch for a middle-class family.
"But I tell my daughter Addy's story is like Cinderella's story. It is a fairy tale. But it is a way to start talking about the truth about slavery."
Even the lessons in social graces that are part of the Williamsburg tour address the complex aspirations women have for their daughters. We want them to be astronauts if they wish, but we want them to be polite and graceful astronauts. We want them to change the world, but not to walk bow-legged or spit in the dust while doing it.
Little girls in dust caps -- some in full Colonial garb -- trail their Colonial guides like baby ducks, past the shops and mansions described in the six books that tell of Felicity's adventures during the birth of America.
There is no real "Felicity" in Williamsburg, no 10-year-old actress who plays the role for the touring girls as the grown-ups do in the living theater that goes on in Williamsburg. And that was intended.
"We have not put a Felicity in Williamsburg," explains Mistress Laura, otherwise known as historical interpreter Laura Martinsen. "That gives the girls the opening to put themselves here as Felicity. It is easy for them to do, because she is already so alive for them."
"When I was young, I read Laura Wilder books and I was Laura Wilder," says Christa Shuler, Rebecca's mother. "She is Felicity. The girls identify so strongly with her."
Inaugurated this spring, the Felicity Tour costs $25 on top of the price of a Williamsburg pass. It moved from a weekend event to a daily event on the first day of summer and was an immediate sell-out hit.
After just two days -- and many disappointed mothers and daughters -- Williamsburg officials doubled the number of tours offered each day and happily worried that they might have to add more. After Labor Day, the tour will return to weekends only.
The 90-minute walking tour takes the girls past, but not inside, the store that Felicity's father might have owned and past the magazine where the gunpowder was stored during Felicity's most important adventure and to the green in front of the Governor's Palace, where she was invited to a ball.
Mistress Laura talked the girls through the milestones in Felicity's books and read passages from the letters of Revolutionary War girls that inspired scenes in those books.
In the afternoon, the girls and their mothers gather again, this time in the second-floor rooms of a Williamsburg Tavern. Dressed in their Sunday best, or in their Felicity dresses and bonnets, the girls fidget and fumble through "tea lessons" with Felicity's teacher, Miss Manderly, just as their tomboy heroine might have done. They learn to stitch and dance and to make polite conversation as they pour tea and hot chocolate and nibble cookies.
"Refinement will help you to assume your rightful place in polite society," Miss Manderly tells the girls.
Kelly Ray never steps out of her role, and, as Miss Manderly, she warns the mothers that she can only do so much. "Remember you are always on display for your daughter as an example. She will learn most of her lessons at your knee."
My own Felicity girls were up at first light, dressing themselves and their dolls for the tour. They learned their courtesies in Mistress Laura's secret garden and used them on a barrister who greeted them in the street.
They played Felicity's games on the green in the town's center and splashed in the bucket of cold water drawn from the well behind a house that might have been hers.
Disappointed that Mistress Laura did not take them inside the houses and shops that were part of Felicity's town, they pleaded with me to return to Felicity's father's store for the rock candy they knew was there.
They lost themselves in the garden maze behind the Governor's Palace, where Felicity had trod, and called to each other for help. They turned round and round, mouths agape, taking in the splendor of the ballroom where Felicity had danced.
Mistress Jessica pouted in frustration during Miss Manderly's stitching lesson, just as Felicity might have done, and Mistress Elizabeth asked for hot chocolate instead of tea, a troubling choice for Felicity, too, because her friends were divided on news of the Boston Tea Party. "At least one of us is a patriot," Elizabeth sniffed to her cousin, who chose the tea.
At dinner, the girls were serenaded by a minstrel, who wandered the tavern as they ate 20th-century chicken fingers and an 18th-century desert.
That night, Mistress Jessica and Mistress Elizabeth doused the lights and worked by candlelight as Felicity would have done. Mixing powdered ink and taking fresh writing paper, they used new quill pens to write notes of love, sealing them with sealing wax.
And in careful script, they addressed the letters to their fathers.
Pub Date: 7/07/96