Will the Real American Girls Please Stand Up?

At some point in American childhoods, the “book and” became all the rage: “book and toy,” “book and stuffed animal,” or “book and doll.” I blame Raggedy Ann, but this might be historically inaccurate.

Another thing that’s historically inaccurate? Those dolls that purport to represent girls in America’s past. You know the ones I’m talking about, not just because you had one or three or all ninetyzillion when you were growing up, but because those dolls have more possessions than your richest friend. Between their “accessories” (read: cardigans and scrapbooks, never tacky souvenirs and dress-up clothes), their birthday “sets,” and their athletic equipment, these dolls teach less about history and more about merchandising. Regardless of time period, race, ethnicity, or geographical location, each of the dolls from this company seems to have vigorous health (all of those “activities!”), a standard IQ for the “school” set, and an intact nuclear family (sometimes fathers are missing due to wartime service or little-mentioned migrant labor).

I’m not opposed to dolls that represent history. I just want them to be more realistic. I decided to illustrate what I mean through a series of Real American Girls Dolls (TM very much pending). My intent isn’t to pick on different cultural or ethnic groups, so I’ve made all of these characters of vague Irish descent, like my own heritage. Most of the different nationalities and races that have found their way to our shores will have found their female members in variations of these roles at one time or another.

Scullery Sarah–Boston, MA, 1790s: Sarah is one of our company’s most affordable options, since she doesn’t actually own anything other than a worn catechism and her granny’s wedding hankie. We “lease” doll owners her clothing, just like her wealthy employers did, right down to her chemise, drawers, and ill-fitting wool stockings. Owners are allowed to choose her laced boots from a pile of stable boys’ discards. Bonus points earned from finding a pair that fits and can be used to buy Sarah a stick of horehound candy on twice-yearly “off days.”

Ellis Island Bridget–New York City, 1880s: Bridget (she has red hair, but don’t mention it) arrives with her own dented potato kettle, wears a moth-eaten shawl, and holds a small sibling of indeterminate sex tightly by one hand. Accessories include a scrap of paper with an address in Hell’s Kitchen where Auntie Siobhan lives (along with, as Bridget does not know, four children, three “sisters” and a rotating cast of “menfriends”), her dead Mam’s claddagh ring, and three shillings in a knitted purse.

Panhandle Peggy–Somewhere in Florida, 1930s: Peggy’s “outfit” (also available in girls’ sizes!) consists of worn denim overalls fastened at one shoulder and a pair of overlarge and filthy Keds sneakers. She cut her own hair a few months ago with kitchen shears, which means its choppy style won’t need much maintenance at the Real American Girls Dolls (TM still pending…) salon. Peggy has a homemade slingshot (she loves Brunswick stew), her uncle’s World War I dogtags, and a couple of cigarette cards of her favorite baseball players.

Wallmartz Wanda–Suburban Michigan, 1990s: Another budget-friendly option, Wanda can share clothes and accessories with Valley Girl Valerie from 1980, because even after 15 years the latest trends haven’t penetrated the Midwest. Since the downfall of their downtown, Wanda and her friends have been forced to hang out at the big-box snack bar, which is why she arrives with a Blue Raspberry Frozee cup and a bag of Cheezles. Most expensive pack of accessories is “A Hair Affair,” including scrunchies, spray, hot rollers, blow dryer, and Dippity Don’t.

Now, which dolls would YOU add to the series?