Ten minutes before 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, a crowd formed outside the entrance of the American Girl store in Midtown Manhattan. A girl ran in circles on the sidewalk like an overexcited puppy. Another, her head crowned in braids, began to cry. Others patted the thighs of their mothers and tugged at the coats of their fathers. The crowd swelled to over 30 people. Everyone was clutching a doll.
“Can we go inside yet?” one waist-high redhead asked her mother while her younger sister gazed at the elaborate window displays facing the street. They showed intricate scenes of American Girl dolls interacting with one another. In one, half a dozen dolls rode a lilac ferris wheel. Near the glass, a doll bought ice cream from a vendor, her left arm thrusting forward a stack of bills, the other clutching a tennis racket. The proprietor stood in mid-exchange, cone in hand, with teal sunglasses covering her eyes and matching streaks in her hair. The scenes rivaled those of Saks Fifth Avenue, directly across the street, which stacked, rather plainly, designer shoes atop white boxes—Stella McCartney, Manolo Blahnik, Christian Dior. No one stood outside waiting to get into the luxury retailer.
The store’s employees opened the doors. The crowd rushed in and headed for the escalators. Brunch was scheduled to start in half an hour on the third floor at the American Girl Cafe. Nearly 100 people had made reservations for the first meal of the day—where everyone is seated at the same time—and the staff scurried to outfit the room in time for its guests.
The dedication to the American Girl brand is a special kind of relationship. Young girls see these dolls as their best friends. Some dolls have specific personalities and backstories (one preteen I spoke to told me that her doll, Josefina, a Mexican girl from 1815, had endured the death of her mother—“I love history,” the girl said). Originally called Historical Characters, the line was rebranded in 2014. Now called BeForever dolls, there is currently a crop of eight, plus a handful of archived characters no longer in production. New personalities are added over time, and some are even reissued. One doll, Samantha Parkington, is an orphan from the turn of the 20th century. Originally released in 1986 when American Girl was founded, she was archived in 2008 and subsequently rereleased during the line’s rebrand. When American Girl made the announcement about Samantha on their Facebook page, the post garnered 800 comments and nearly 1,000 shares. One girl from Arkansas wrote, “im so exited!!!!!!!! im so totally gonna save up my money to buy her!” Some grown women, too, were thrilled to see a character from their youth reemerge. A popular—and arguably more profound—pastime, the collection and personification of American Girl dolls shaped the generation of women growing up in the pre-Millennial era, which helped elevate the brand and solidify it as a landmark in American culture.
But girls are also able to purchase a baseline doll, called a Truly Me Doll, and customize it in their own image. There are literally thousands of potential combinations, all the details adding up to a doll that is uniquely their own. To them, the opportunity to have brunch with their doll—something they created and help maintain—at the American Girl Cafe wasn’t just special, it was iconic. It is a treat as much for the doll as it is for the girl. One of only three locations in the country (the others are Chicago and Los Angeles) that offers an American Girl-themed cafe dining experience, the restaurant attracts patrons from all over the United States. For that morning’s event, some families came from as far as Florida to indulge in the three-course meal. It costs $20 per person. Pink lemonade is complimentary.
A mother approached the hostess stand. “Do we have time to get the doll’s ears pierced before brunch?” The hostess pulled the edges of her mouth down. She’d be cutting it close. The mother nodded, crouched down, and told her daughter they’d have to do it afterward. Shortly thereafter, the dining room opened and guests began to take their seats. Booths lined the walls and tables draped in white cloth filled the rest of the room. Frilled napkins tied at the center with a pink bow were laid atop plates. Two private dining rooms anchored the space’s west end. The waitstaff, of which there were nearly 20, wore pink aprons.
Each doll got her very own seat, which clamped onto the edge of the tabletop. Sitting down near the far end of the room, Alissa, a six-year-old from New Jersey, patted down her doll’s dress before looking over the menu. She had come with her mother and grandmother. Her two front teeth were missing. She ordered the heart-shaped pancakes. After receiving her iced tea, she poured some for her doll and brought the miniature mug to her lips.
“She likes to win trophies,” Alissa told me about her doll, who is also named Alissa and wore a matching blue flower in her hair. The doll sleeps next to Alissa in her very own bed, with “a sheet! And a pillow! And a blanket!” Alissa’s mother smiled at her excitement. “We’re going to buy matching outfits today!” Alissa exclaimed, beaming a soft strip of gum where her two front teeth had recently been.
A few tables over, another family, from outside Philadelphia, had just received their drinks. The mother and father, young and well-dressed, had sangria. Their two daughters, Olivia and Cecilia, both ordered hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. They drove their fingers into the drink’s topping, gave a taste to their doll, and licked the rest themselves. “She likes to get fancy clothes and also take naps,” Olivia said, smiling, a rogue incisor jutting to the left. Olivia likes to read, her mother told me, and finished Charlotte’s Web so she could come to the store. As her younger sister took bites of whipped cream from the top of her mug, Olivia bent over to her doll and, pointing to the miniature cup on the table, whispered, “You have some hot chocolate in there, OK?”
Main courses began to emerge from the kitchen—boats of eggs covered in cheese, stacks of french toast, browned-over pancakes—and, as some tables powered through their food, the birthday celebrations began. Servers carried out small cakes coated in pink-and-white frosting to girls wearing crowns. One girl, Emani, celebrating her eighth birthday, smiled as her family sang for her. She blew out the candles and the the surrounding tables clapped. She had gotten her doll, Chloe, for her birthday last year and had since been planning to spend her next big day at the American Girl store in Manhattan.
She saved up money for nearly ten months to buy an outfit for her doll, whom she is currently customizing to look and behave even more like herself. It’s true that owning these dolls is a small luxury. A doll can cost over $100 (a Barbie is in the $10 to $20 range), plus the costs of outfits and accessories. Some dolls, with all the bells and whistles, can be worth nearly $500. Emani’s family left their home in Delaware at 5 a.m. to make it to the city on time. After cutting the cake, she scooped a piece for herself and placed another, smaller sliver onto a separate plate for her mini-me.
Many girls favor creating their dolls by molding her interests and appearance after their own. There is a transfer-of-self in regard to the relationships forged with these dolls, a heightened sense of responsibility woven into the bond between them—maternalistic, or maybe preservationist, but nothing like the destructivity typically seen in young males. As a boy, I yearned for control—to understand and dissect objects and the themes that embodied them—whereas these girls aim to form an understanding about their own purpose and abilities by personifying their dolls as extensions of themselves.
Pamela, a mother of four from Westchester, first came to the American Girl store over a decade ago. Her goddaughter had gotten into the dolls and they would venture off into the city for girls-only weekend jaunts dedicated to doll upgrades. Now, with two daughters of her own, she had brought them for their first trip. Her eldest daughter, Jenna, turned six the day before and, instead of an inflatable castle or other extravagant backyard party favor, she requested that she be able to upgrade her American Girl doll. The one she had, a Bitty Baby, was just too young now that she was becoming older and more mature than her plastic counterpart. The thing she wanted more than anything was a doll with real hair (the “hair” of a Bitty Baby is just painted onto their textured skull). Her younger sister, Allie, barely past the threshold of being decent at walking, joined them for brunch and the subsequent shopping spree. She added excitement to their trip by mashing a cinnamon bun into her face and laughing about it. “You’re going to be a hot mess aren’t you?” Pamela joked, wiping frosting from her nostrils.
“Maybe we can get her hair done?” Jenna asked her mother, trying to jam the miniature mug onto the finger of a borrowed doll, of which there is a shelf at the restaurant's entrance, in case a guest does not yet have a doll and wants to experience eating with one. She gave up and instead turned her attention to the doll’s hair, which fell in strawberry-blonde ribbons onto its shoulders. After dessert, the trio put on their jackets and went down to the first floor to find Jenna a suitable counterpart.
Allie pushed the alarm button in the elevator and, as soon as its doors opened, she shot off, the LED lights in her shoes flickering with every hulking step. Pamela scooted in pursuit, dragging her stroller behind her. Jenna, more composed than her little sister, inspected the various dolls and accessories, careful to choose the perfect one. She debated between brunettes, blondes and redheads, and all the shades in between: chestnut, copper, ash. And what kind of girl would her new doll be? Options abounded. She could be a gymnast, a horse trainer, a chef, a basketball player. She could even have a broken leg—a purple cast and matching crutches cost a mere $30.
In the end, she chose a doll that looked very much like her. She selected a pink dress for her and a matching, life-size version for herself. She placed the items in the stroller. Just after 11 a.m., the store was overrun with girls and their parents, clusters of people swarming from display case to display case like a sea of cicadas surging onto fresh crops. A father, gray-haired with glasses, sat reading a book next to the elevators. Pamela and her daughters rounded the next corner and the American Girl Salon came into view. Jenna looked up at her mother. The long line wove through the center of the store.
“A two-hour wait to get her hair done?” Pamela said, putting her hand on her daughter’s head. “I don’t see that happening.”
Ian Frisch is a freelance journalist currently living in Brooklyn. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Wired, and Vice, among others.