The historical character line of American Girl dolls was released in 1986 and became wildly popular by the mid-1990s. These 18-inch dolls and their accompanying books aimed to teach aspects of United States history from the perspectives of 8 to 11 year old girls living in certain time periods. During the 1990s, five dolls were featured in the collection: Felicity Merriman (1774), Kirsten Larson (1854), Addy Walker (1864), Samantha Parkington (1904), and Molly McIntire (1944). Now, with retired dolls included, there are a total of 15 historic characters with stories spanning from 1764 to 1974.
As I have grown into adulthood, I reflect fondly on the American Girl stories, and the influence they had on me as I learned about US history in elementary school. While my school textbooks were filled with dry and generally patriarchal passages, the American Girl books focused on girls my age encountering the world around them. Sometimes their experiences were narrated with humor, while at other times, with the utmost seriousness. The fictional protagonists helped me find a window into history — I started peering through the glass as a young girl, and have been captivated ever since.
In Meet Allison, an American Girl, I meticulously replicate and construct period appropriate clothing by hand, and photograph myself at locations that are historically accurate to the American Girl stories. Carrying the parallel on (I was an 8 to 11 year old reading books about 8 to 11 year olds), I have moved the characters’ ages 22 - 24 years forward. With their timelines shifted to reflect my current age, I ask, what would Kirsten, Josefina, or Samantha look and think like in the 1870s, 1840s, and 1920s, respectively? How would the contexts of major cultural impacts like the Civil War, WWI, Prohibition, and Westward Expansion have affected their lives? Using primary and secondary sources that focus on women’s history, politics, literature, art, and social change, I am constructing the visual epilogues to the American Girls’ classic stories.