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Playing With History : In a world of Barbies, what's the draw of five historically correct dolls? Confidence and courage for starters.

November 28, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIDDLETON, Wis. — The Wrobel family was off for a long weekend, headed to the uplands of Wisconsin from their home near Chicago, three hours away.

Not so fast, 7-year-old Casey Wrobel announced. The family simply couldn't pass so close to Pleasant Company without paying a visit, she declared. Now, with her 5-year-old sister, Maxine, in tow and her beloved Felicity doll in her arms, Casey was pressed against the display cases, drinking in the details of her heroines' lives.

"The girls wouldn't let us go anywhere else until we stopped here," Nancy Wrobel said. Like hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of pre-adolescent American females, her daughters are held in thrall by five fictional girls whose lives span the gamut of American history, from Colonial days to the home front of World War II.

These are the American Girls, characters Pleasant T. Rowland dreamed up nine years ago in hopes of imbuing 7- to 12-year-old girls with the kind of timeless values she grew up with in the 1940s and '50s.

Confidence, honesty, innocence and courage were what Rowland intended to impart when she created Felicity (spunky Colonial girl), Kirsten (tough pioneer child), Addy (proud daughter of runaway slaves), Samantha (beguiling Victorian orphan) and Molly (helping out on the home front).

The five characters form the core of Rowland's Pleasant Company, which last year recorded sales of more than $150 million--up 40% from 1992.

Historically correct dolls, furniture, accessories and clothing account for the majority of Pleasant Company's vast, largely direct-mail business. Here in the cornfields outside Madison, an average of 15,000 telephone inquiries pour in daily to Rowland's 350,000-square-foot command post. Next year, Pleasant Company expects to ship between 29 million and 30 million merchandise catalogues.

Many nonfiction writers would pine for the 30,000 first-run printing that accompanied each volume in the American Girls "Pastimes" collection of craft books, cookbooks, theater kits and paper dolls. American Girl, an advertisement-free bimonthly magazine launched two years ago, boasts more than 400,000 subscribers at $19.95 per year.

Recently, Rowland took the American Girls to school, offering a $50 curriculum package to elementary school teachers. Fashion shows packaged by Pleasant Company for nonprofit organizations regularly attract thousands of mothers and daughters, many garbed in their favorite American Girl costumes. A tea party that Rowland threw at Colonial Williamsburg in 1991 to introduce Felicity drew 11,000 guests.

Book signings turn into similar mob scenes. Clutching their American Girls dolls in one hand and their American Girls books in the other, a thousand girls wait hours to meet an American Girls author. A series of six books tells the story of each character; together, the American Girls books have sold more than 20 million copies. The "Addy" series alone has sold more than 1 million copies in the past six months.

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All of which often strikes Pleasant Rowland as "humbling." But never does her success surprise her.

"I guess there is some inherent arrogance in saying that my gut told me this was the right thing," Rowland said. "I knew it was right. I just did."

She paused, looked straight ahead and managed to make the following statement without sounding the least bit sanctimonious: "And I have come to believe that this was what Pleasant Rowland was put in the world to do."

The oldest child of Pleasant and Edward Thiele grew up in comfortable affluence outside Chicago. Her mother stayed home with the kids. Her father was president of a large advertising agency.

It was an idyllic time when television had not yet raised what Rowland, now 53, regards as its monstrous head in the lives of American families. She read voraciously. She played outside unsupervised. "It would never have dawned on us to come home and sit in front of the television for four hours," she said.

She studied education in college, taught school, then switched briefly to--horror of horrors--television, anchoring for KGO in San Francisco. In her 30s she edited textbooks and developed teaching materials. At 36, she followed her heart to Wisconsin when she met and married the owner of a printing company.

Attending a convention at Colonial Williamsburg, Rowland experienced a full-scale epiphany. "I was just blown away," she recalled, "not just by the beauty, but by the vision of the man, (John D.) Rockefeller, who put it together."

Rowland felt she was in a ready-made history classroom. But to her dismay, "all the materials were geared to adults." She went straight to the foundation that runs the facility and proposed a more child-friendly approach. Soon she was developing Colonial information packets for kids.

About the same time, she went Christmas shopping for her nieces. She wanted to buy them dolls--toys they could treasure and maybe even learn from. But this was 1984, and all she could find were Barbie or the Cabbage Patch Kids.

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