All Dolled Up
She Founded American Girl To “Bring History Alive.” Then She Made Over A Town.
America embraced the American Girl dolls. Aurora, New York, wasn’t so welcoming.
It’s close to last call on a Thursday at the Fargo Bar & Grill in Aurora, New York, a five-hour drive and a world away from New York City. About 20 of the town’s 200 year-round residents are here — the man in his 60s sitting next to me just got his drink comped by a couple sitting at a nearby bistro table. (He used to cut their grass, he explains.) Then, he leans over to tell me I’m sitting in the ladies’ room. Thinking I must have misheard him — Toto’s “Love Isn’t Always on Time” is blaring pretty loudly — I ask him to repeat himself. Sure enough, I’m sitting in the ladies’ room. Finally, I realize: He’s talking about this bar’s layout during the B.P. era — Before Pleasant.
Pleasant, as in Pleasant T. Rowland, the creator of the American Girl doll empire that has etched an indelible mark on the childhoods of millions of girls since launching in 1986. Three years after selling the company in 1998 to Mattel for a cool $700 million, Rowland partnered with her alma mater, Wells College, to restore two properties in the college’s small village of Aurora — a once-affluent town whose picturesque downtown and Gilded Age mansions were falling into disrepair. She eventually purchased those two properties outright, and began buying more. She currently owns more than 15 buildings in Aurora — including the one I’m sitting in — and has turned much of it into a resort town with five four-star boutique hotels and a spa. Some locals have welcomed the changes, while others have complained that Rowland exhibited too heavy a hand with her improvements; as the New York Times summed it up in 2007, “Doll’s Village: Some See Restoration As Too Cutesy.” But no matter what side they’re on, many of Aurora’s residents see their town’s history divided into two distinct periods — B.P. and A.P.
In many ways, Aurora — and its picture-perfect approach to historical preservation — is the key to understanding the cultural phenomenon that is the American Girl doll. For many children, the dolls and their books functioned as a foundational American history curriculum; it’s not an understatement to say that Rowland is almost single-handedly responsible for filling millions of context-free little minds with their very first understandings of concepts like slavery, revolution, immigration, and war. Of course, this was all filtered through the discerning lens of Rowland. As members of the first American Girl doll generation reach parenthood themselves with a national debate about how to teach American history raging in the background, they’ve been reckoning with what their stories did and didn’t teach us about the past. They’re visiting the American Girl Doll Cafe, listening to fan-made American Girl podcasts, making memes, even using the American Girl cookbooks. And yes, they’re making fun of Aurora (as Curbed sarcastically asked of Rowland last year: “remaking an entire town just to her liking. Is that so much to ask for?”).
No matter what side they’re on, many of Aurora’s residents see their town’s history divided into two distinct periods — B.P. and A.P.
How Rowland, now 81, feels about her newfound place in the zeitgeist is unclear. She doesn’t give many interviews, and almost every one she’s given since becoming a person of public interest four decades ago notes how much she hates them. (Through a spokesperson, she declined a request for an interview. The spokesperson also declined a request for comment on anything unrelated to the Inns of Aurora.) Pictures of her are equally hard to come by — there’s exactly one headshot on a visitor’s pamphlet at Aurora, which features a woman with close-cropped silver hair and bold, sensible jewels (think: Ellen Burstyn as mother of the bride).
That a woman so known for celebrating history would be hesitant to participate in the first draft of it might seem surprising. But those close to her say it’s par for the course. “Pleasant is extremely smart, has a lot of vision, and, like all humans, has lots of contradictions,” says Harriet Brown, a professor of journalism at Syracuse and one of the original editors of American Girl magazine, a monthly glossy that was sold in catalogs alongside the dolls. “The only difference is Pleasant’s contradictions over the years have played out in a public way.”
Pleasant Thiele was born to an advertising executive father — Edward Thiele, onetime president of famed agency Leo Burnett — and a homemaker mother. She grew up as the oldest of four in the leafy, well-to-do Chicago suburb of Bannockburn; her wholesome childhood included summers at Red Pine, an all-girls camp in nearby Wisconsin (which she would eventually buy and restore, a la Aurora). After graduating from Wells in 1962, Rowland forged an unusually independent path for a woman of the Mona Lisa Smile generation, starting out as an elementary school teacher before beginning a stint as an on-air reporter and anchor for KGO-TV, the San Francisco ABC affiliate, in 1968. By 1976, Rowland — she’d picked up the last name in 1963 from a short-lived marriage — had reinvented herself yet again, this time as a children’s textbook editor living in Boston. While on a work trip to Madison, Wisconsin, she met Jerry Frautschi, a printing firm sales rep and divorced father of three who would become her lifelong partner. They married six months later.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Rowland, at that point 45, would embark on the career that landed her products in toy boxes around the country and on Forbes’ list of the 50 richest self-made women in America, alongside Oprah Winfrey and the inventor of Spanx. The idea for her new venture had been germinating for two years, ever since she was charmed by a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. In a version of a story she’d recall in virtually every interview she’d later give, she sat on a bench in the historical reenactment village and asked herself: “Was there some way I could bring history alive for [children], the way Williamsburg had for me?” A few months later, while Christmas shopping for her 8- and 10-year-old nieces, she found her answer: dolls. Cabbage Patch Kids — all the rage at the time — “were ugly, and Barbie wasn’t what I had in mind either,” Rowland later told CNN. “Here I was, in a generation of women at the forefront of redefining women’s roles, and yet our daughters were playing with dolls that celebrated being a teen queen or a mommy.”
Rowland’s solution was something she’d come to liken to “chocolate cake with vitamins”: a series of dolls, each belonging to a different time period of American history, with a corresponding series of teachable moment books. She tapped Valerie Tripp, a Yale graduate with a master’s in education from Harvard whom she knew from her textbook days, to help. Together, Rowland and Tripp imagined three characters to launch with: Kirsten Larson, a Minnesota pioneer with Nordic roots living in the 1850s; Samantha Parkington, a well-to-do orphan who lived with her grandmother in 1904, during the Progressive Era; and Molly McIntire, a bespectacled suburban girl living during World War II. (Felicity Merriman, a flame-haired horse girl living at the start of the American Revolution, followed in 1991.) The dolls themselves were almost an afterthought — Rowland based her 18-inch prototype, with its flickering eyes and perma-amused expression, off a doll a friend dug out of a reject bin at Marshall Field’s. She found a West German factory label sewn in the doll’s underwear, and soon was on a plane to Europe to pick out fabrics and dress patterns herself.
Buyers for toy stores didn’t get it. The dolls were marketed to girls between the ages of 7 and 12, right around the time children were said to stop playing with dolls. Plus, at $75 a pop, compared to a $15 Barbie, they were way too expensive. But Rowland had an “intuitive, unshakable sense that if I did this, other people would want it,” so she founded Pleasant Company with seed money from her textbook days, and sent out half a million catalogs hawking her wares across the country. (She also took out a handful of ads in places like the New Yorker.) By the end of her first holiday season in business, sales hit nearly $2 million; by 1991, it was $50 million.
Part of the reason for her success, no doubt, was that Rowland’s rollout lined up perfectly with second-wave feminism and its gospel of girl power. Many mothers and young girls felt that Barbie and her ilk didn’t meet the moment; as Life magazine put it in a cover story featuring a girl hugging a Kirsten doll, “Move Over, Barbie.” (That she’d eventually sell American Girl to Mattel, the manufacturers of Barbie, was an irony that Rowland said “did not escape me.”)
Soon, over 300 employees — 80% of them women — were working at Pleasant Company’s headquarters in Middleton, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison. In 1994, she told the Los Angeles Times she considered herself a “Mother Superior” type to her staffers. Rowland was “a force of nature,” says novelist Connie Porter, who was recruited by Rowland to write the books for the Addy doll in the early ’90s. “The passion with which she spoke about her vision was something that touched me.” Indeed, Rowland had a strong vision — one that sometimes bumped up against the brand’s tenets of historical edification and female empowerment. As one former employee put it, “Pleasant doesn’t do dark.” Some former staffers of American Girl magazine recall Rowland wasn’t a fan of “edgy” pitches, such as a piece about foot-binding and a story about girls whose mothers were running for office in 1992. (Both stories ultimately ran, however.) After an early issue was put to bed, two former staffers recall Rowland being displeased that the product wasn’t “girly” enough. According to the former employees, Rowland told the magazine’s staff they couldn’t leave a conference room until they had come up with 100 words that described what young women loved — such as “roller skates,” “kittens,” and “rainbows.” The point of the exercise, as one former employee explained, was: “You women have been confronted with stereotypes your whole life and you’re sick of them. These girls don’t know them and they’re hungry for them.”
“You women have been confronted with stereotypes your whole life and you’re sick of them. These girls don’t know them and they’re hungry for them.”
In 1993, that tension was put to the ultimate stress test when Rowland — as she unfortunately put it in an interview at the time — “pushed the diversity button” by introducing Addy Walker, the company’s first African American doll, whose backstory involved being born into slavery. (She’d wanted to do it sooner, she explained, but felt the company needed to be on firm financial footing first.) According to Porter, Rowland recognized American Girl’s limitations for telling Addy’s story as “a white company, in a white state, with a white CEO”; to remedy this, Rowland sought out Porter, a Black novelist, to write Addy’s books, and created an advisory board of esteemed African American academics, including current Smithsonian head Lonnie Bunch.
Still, she ensured the American Girl ethos wouldn’t be lost: Rowland, Porter says, didn’t want Addy’s story to be “so depressing.” Porter agreed with this direction. “I didn’t want her to be just defined by being a slave,” Porter says. “I didn’t see what purpose that served.” To that end, Porter imagined Addy as a 9-year-old born on a North Carolina plantation who escapes to freedom in Philadelphia in the very first book — but not before a scene in which her overseer forces her to eat a worm. Not the most horrible abuse someone in Addy’s position might have faced, Porter admits, but she took pains to set up Addy’s story so it was clear “that if she stayed in that world and grew up, it was going to get worse.” The books also didn’t contain mention of the N-word, an artistic choice on which Porter, the board, and Rowland unanimously agreed, according to the novelist. “The bottom line was that the books contained enough tough and visceral truths that using the N-word could have sidetracked parents, educators, and critics to the point that the other products [e.g., dolls] would not have been viable,” Porter says.
Addy was, inevitably, the topic of controversy. Some rolled their eyes at what they saw as an exercise in virtue signaling, while others questioned the decision to make the company’s first Black doll an enslaved person. Perhaps the most damning critique was that the American Girl rubric — with its tidy chapter-book conclusions and cutesy, sold-separately accessories — was an insufficient tool for capturing this horrific chapter of American history. As Eloise Greenfield, a children’s book author whom the company had asked for advice on the development of Addy, told the Washington Post at the time, “[Addy’s] story did not fit in with the other dolls.” “I think those kinds of criticisms are fair to a certain extent,” says Porter, adding that Addy had been designed with the product-minded American Girl doll mold in mind. (For instance, the detail that Walker’s mother was a seamstress explained “how somebody who would have otherwise owned one dress was going to get all these dresses.”) “But if you are going to explore girlhood, then we felt she needs to be a girl,” Porter adds. “I didn’t want her to be a perpetual victim.” In other words, Addy’s slightly sanitized plotline gave readers the opportunity to relate to her in the same way they related to the existing American Girl characters. “It was important to see Addy as being just as viable as an American Girl as Molly or Felicity.” Rowland, for her part, ultimately declared Addy a resounding success. “If I got hit by a truck tomorrow, I could die knowing that we made toy history,” Rowland told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “We made a black doll an object of status and desire for white children.”
Rowland applied her unshakable vision to all aspects of the business, no matter how seemingly trivial. That very same Los Angeles Times article quipped: “Pity the poor employee who fails to poof the tissue paper sufficiently in an outgoing order.” Indeed, former staffers recall a boss with an impeccable eye for detail who could be demanding, even over-the-top: One staffer remembers Rowland inspecting employees’ desks with a white glove after hours in search of dust. (While no other employees contacted for this piece recalled that practice specifically, no one characterized it as out of character, either.) “Pleasant has a reputation for being beyond picky about things, and that could be tough to work with,” Brown says. “But I also think women are critiqued much more for knowing what they want, and going after it, than men would be.”
Former Pleasant Company staffers said Rowland displayed a healthy sense of humor about certain topics — but not Molly and co. “The thing about Pleasant — she was dead serious. There’s no irony, no wink-wink when it came to her work,” says a former staffer. That steadfast earnestness was on display during a campaign event in Madison for Barack Obama. One of the two dozen VIPs in attendance remembers that when the superstar candidate got to Rowland, she made a beeline for him. Before he could say a word, she presented him with American Girl promotional materials. “Everybody in the room was sort of thinking, ‘Whoa, I’m not sure this is appropriate,’ and was sort of waiting to see what would happen,” the attendee recalls. But Obama didn’t miss a beat. “He responded very enthusiastically — ‘Sasha and Malia love American Girl dolls! This is great,’ or something to that effect.”
Susan Lampert Smith, a former reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, also observed that self-serious, exacting nature when she profiled Rowland in 1996. “I had not come across somebody who was so controlling of their image… Now, granted, we don’t have a lot of CEOs in Madison, so it’s probably normal behavior [elsewhere]. [But] this is the Midwest, where you’re supposed to pretend to be nice,” recalls Lampert Smith, who was given only a half an hour for the interview and wasn’t allowed to bring a photographer. The result was a mostly positive piece about a local business reaching meteoric heights. It did, however, contain one notable dig: an unnamed source who had served on boards for city projects with Rowland quipped, “Pleasant, isn’t.” Rowland wasn’t happy. “The publisher came to me and told me, ‘Hey, I talked to Pleasant and she’d like you to be fired but I’m not going to do it,’” Lampert Smith recalls, though she suggests her boss was half-joking.
“The thing about Pleasant — she was dead serious. There’s no irony, no wink-wink when it came to her work.”
The story goes that Rowland decided to remake Aurora after becoming distressed by the state of the town while visiting her alma mater to deliver a commencement address in 1995. Wells was suffering from dwindling enrollment, and the downtown district, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was in disrepair. It’s a story told with great pride during my hour-long walking tour of Aurora, a free activity offered to guests of the Inns. (I’m the only guest who has shown up on this particular day.) I’m staying in the 11-room Zabriskie House, a bright white Georgian revival built in 1904, the very same year the Samantha series begins. The interiors skew Elle Decor — the fustiness of original moldings are cut with graphic ikats and shiny bright lacquers, and there’s a sleek remote-controlled fireplace. Pleasant likes it “clean without being antiseptic,” the guide says of her aesthetic.
What’s clean and what’s antiseptic is up for debate. Certainly, there are elements to Aurora that feel undeniably Epcot-esque. If you look closely, there’s a unifying serif font — on shampoo dispensers in the hotel rooms, on administrative buildings, on visitor pamphlets — that recalls the one used in American Girl doll catalogs. In many ways, the tiny town seems less like a town and more like a campus for a girls’ weekend: There’s Aurora Cooks!, a demo kitchen; a converted one-room schoolhouse that now hosts yoga classes and tarot card readings; and a stately limestone building that houses an ATM. With three churches within the vicinity of two New York City blocks, it’s also ideal for weddings, assuming you’re planning an adults-only event: Kids under 12 aren’t allowed to stay at the Inns of Aurora. (The logic behind that wasn’t ever quite explained to me — perhaps to cut down on American Girl groupies?) Many people I spoke with cited Rowland’s exacting eye — she’d hunt for months, say, for the perfect Edwardian bench to put on the porch of a building on Main Street rather than have an anachronistic chair. Once, Rowland requested the door frame in a commercial space be moved 4 inches, a change that ultimately cost in excess of $100,000. It wasn’t done for historical accuracy. “It was just Pleasant’s vision,” a person familiar with the situation said. “Pleasant wanted it. So she got it.”
Rowland’s saga with some members of the Aurora community began at a press conference of sorts held on Aurora’s main drag in 2001. Rowland promised the residents that had gathered “a new day for Aurora, a second sunrise for this dear place.” She even took over the Aurora-based cult decor brand MacKenzie-Childs, which had recently filed for Chapter-11 bankruptcy, to save 240 jobs. A coalition of village residents and Wells students almost immediately filed suit to halt Rowland’s development on the grounds that it wasn’t historically accurate; in 2003, the Wells student newspaper declared Rowland the “Best Fascist in Town.” Cars around town began to sport bumper stickers bearing the slogan “Aurora was Pleasant Before.” An octopus, each tentacle stamped with the name of a building that Rowland’s foundation had acquired, floated down Main Street during the annual Aurorafest parade.
In the mid-aughts, J. Robert Lennon, who briefly taught at Wells College, wrote a draft of a novel for his editor at Norton called Happyland about a manipulative doll company CEO who buys a small college town in upstate New York. While Lennon claimed the book was just as much an allegory for Bush-era politics as it was an examination of Aurora, his publisher curiously dropped the project, prompting the New York Times to publish “The Mystery of the Missing Novel,” noting how extremely rare it is for a publisher to drop a novel due to libel concerns. (The Devil Wears Prada, infamously inspired by Anna Wintour, had recently come out without issue.) “I think some people in Aurora who welcomed Rowland believed I despised her or something,” said Lennon, when I contacted him for comment. “A shop owner there gave me a piece of her mind… But I’ve always been an agnostic who likes a good story.”
Aurora wasn’t Rowland’s first experience with angering a town. In 1995, when Rowland was still at the helm of Pleasant Co., she announced plans to buy the mansard house Tripp had used as the model for Samantha’s home. In her vision, the home, located 45 minutes outside the city in Mount Kisco, New York, would be turned into a museum called Samantha’s House, where visitors would be led by guides portraying characters from the books, and enjoy afternoon tea in a carriage house on the property. She took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper, promising to be “a good neighbor” (she’d even shuttle buses to a gift shop to cut back on traffic!), but the town refused her a permit citing zoning regulations. In response, Rowland threatened to move the house before ultimately pulling up stakes. Rowland developed the concept for the American Girl Place — a 35,000-square-foot storefront, complete with a cafe and 150-seat theater, that allowed young fans to experience the brand more fully — around the same time. With commercial real estate, she had free rein — an unchecked power that residential communities never gave her.
But unlike with Samatha’s House, when it came to Aurora, Rowland never gave up — even as the pressure mounted to the point that, as a supporter of Rowland told the New York Times, Rowland couldn’t walk down the street without being cursed at by locals. By 2008, Rowland put both her personal homes in Aurora, a brick federalist mansion and a two-acre lakefront property, on the market and announced plans to leave. “I just simply saved a town that was crumbling,” Rowland told the Wall Street Journal. “My work there is completed.” (A close associate of Rowland said she didn’t have plans to leave, but was simply hurt by the reaction to her efforts in the town.)
Of course, Rowland reversed course. Last year, she opened the most ambitious facility on the Inns’ campus: a 15,000-square-foot spa, set on 350 acres of lavender and alfalfa. Rowland has framed her work in Aurora as philanthropic, and she is indeed a philanthropist: In Madison, she and her husband are known for their largesse, which has included gifts to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Transplant Center and a local performing arts center. But the institutions she’s built in Aurora are hardly nonprofits. It recalls an observation from a 2000 Philadelphia Inquirer article about the American Girl empire: “American Girl Place pretends to be about sweetness and togetherness, but the real message is: Happiness is a Stuffed Shopping Bag.”