MIDDLETON, Wis. — Welcome to the Arctic Pole, added or less. If you are amid 8 and 12 years old and female, there is a acceptable adventitious this is breadth your Christmas will appear from. A small, collapsed boondocks of 17,000. The home of American Girl. If you’re a parent, this is breadth your money goes.
I can’t relate: I don’t accept kids or comedy with dolls. Until afresh I didn’t apperceive abundant about American Girl. Yet I’m spending a day at its headquarters.
I’d been cerebration about American Girl. It was founded by Pleasant Rowland, who grew up in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. The baby aggregation angry 25 this year. And so, I’d absolved to American Babe Abode on Michigan Avenue to attestant the anniversary crush. Fathers banged into me, angling to apprehend third-grade autography on Christmas lists. A mother shouted: “They appear with clothes! They don’t appear naked!” I heard accouchement cry: “I appetite those!” and “I appetite that!” and “The piano! Not the dog!” I abstruse the piano costs $150, crutches are $30 and Marie-Grace’s anniversary dress is $35.
I abstruse the babe of the year baby — or GOTY, as I would afterwards see bashed all over the address — is a big deal, accessible for alone 12 months, anniversary absent its buyer to chase her affection and do acceptable in the world. Nicki volunteers. Kailey protects advance pools. Marisol confused from Chicago to the suburbs but because she could dance, aggregate formed out. This actuality gets exhausting. I grew dizzy: If it’s that activated here, I thought, afresh what’s the address like? Afterwards an hour of staring at American Babe faces — two advanced teeth dabbling from their half-smiles — I had amorphous to admiration what American Babe dolls were thinking.
The aing day, at the headquarters, I ask Ellen Brothers, the president, what the dolls are thinking. She says she knows what I mean. Aback she started in the 1990s, she was taken ashamed by how anybody at address referred to the dolls as “she” and “her.” A accumulating of absolute dolls stands on a shelf aerial aloft her desk, actualization accessible to either avert her or bound to their deaths. Brothers looks up at them: “They are cerebration about the 8-year-old who’ll accord them a home this Christmas or Hanukkah.”
That’s what they’re thinking?
“That’s what they’re thinking, yes.”
On the accumulation line
To ability American Babe headquarters, drive to Madison, afresh accumulate activity west for about 10 minutes. This allotment is heartbreaking, because the aloft American Babe address is still in Madison, a blocky old coffer with corrective brick that couldn’t accept age-old added nicely. It’s absolutely breadth you would like a anxious toy-maker to be headquartered. But the aggregation larboard in 1988, accepting outgrown the abode alarmingly fast. Which is why American Babe is in Middleton, on a 35-acre campus at the aback of a antiquated appointment park, aloof bottomward the alley from the Black Dahlia Boom parlor and a janitorial accumulation company.
It’s aqueous the day I arrive, although it seems like the affectionate of abode breadth you could acquisition a dabble on a brilliant day. The address itself is large, aluminum-looking and featureless, with a barbecue table in front. Several hundred bodies assignment actuality — added during holidays — and because the parking lot is abounding aback I arrive, this actuality the Christmas rush, I brainstorm doll-on-doll anarchy inside. But the offices are eerily silent.
Julie Parks, the administrator of accessible relations, meets me in the lobby, which is a apparition boondocks except for a activated secretary sitting in advanced of a assurance account “We bless girls.” And of course, the dolls. All those dolls. Adjoin a aback wall, central canteen cubes. There’s additionally an abandoned case with a agenda reading: “Girl of the Year 2012.” I ask Parks who the GOTY will be and she smiles and says that’s appear afterwards Christmas.
I try again. She smiles.
Our bout begins at the library, which, I am afraid to find, is absolutely a library, with three librarians/researchers acquisitive to alarm how they body belief about anniversary doll. Here, they do the background that provides aggregate from the best name for the baby to the capacity of the doll’s life, which the designers and alike the authors of American Babe books afresh assignment from. Like a lot of bodies here, they accredit to the architecture of a baby as “an immerse, holistic process.”
Down the hall, accomplished life-size cutouts of the absolute dolls, we are keyed through bankrupt doors to access the architecture and development department, which is the one bend of the architecture on abiding lockdown, breadth baby active blink over the acme of anteroom farms. Outside the appointment of Megan Boswell, the administration director, there are bins and tables and swatches of t and pieces of dolls. Like best anybody I accommodated — tours are so exceptional — they assume acquisitive to appearance everything: There are drawers captivation absolute day dresses from the 1800s, aged umbrellas, old newspapers. And bins captivation every believable baby allotment and accessory: harbinger hats, t hats, flocked hats, socks, sweaters, active with hair, active afterwards hair.
“It’s so organized,” I say.
“Yes, I am aing to defective medication,” Boswell replies.
I ask what she thinks the dolls are activated about. She says, “The possibilities,” afresh adds, beneath lyrically, “Maybe she’d like a snowboard?” In her office, added possibilities, including a affiche lath covered in annual clips of adolescent faces. I atom Taylor Swift, Mila Kunis. What affectionate of dolls do kids ask for?
“Seriously? They ask for everything,” she says.
Jennifer Hirsch, whose appellation is controlling editor, is continuing adjacent and angelus in: “An adopted babe … an adopted babe from Poland … an adopted babe from Lithuania …”
“Pilgrims,” Parks says.
“Boy dolls,” Boswell says.
“But we aloof can’t be emblematic of all experiences,” Hirsch says, frowning.
Eight or nine dolls are consistently in development, and a account of 30 added possibilities floats around. They won’t acquaint me about these, acceptance in the cubicles of the designers I apprehension collies, poodle skirts, Volkswagen Beetles, 1950s bathing suits, continued California vistas that advance a agronomical or a abundance pass. The charge to accumulate secrets aing is so able that aback I ask artist Steve DeSpirito, who molds the heads, the aberration amid identical molds on his desk, he won’t explain. But he does say that active should not attending too activated or too abundant like a caricature, and that awful agreement is a concern: “We accept struggled to assignment aback into them some attributes that got smoothed out. You appetite to say, ‘No, cheeks should not be perfect.'”
We canyon a applicable room, a dyeing room, a allowance breadth accessories are built, but none of the elves seems to be around. And afresh we ability the alarm center, and the activity akin in the architecture jumps. It’s a sea of cubicles and bodies on the buzz with customers, discussing the archive in hushed tones. Signs everywhere say Kanani, 2011 babe of the year, is awash out, so don’t advance it can be found, but do advance a customized baby with vaguely agnate appearance is available.
Downstairs, on the accumulation line, dolls with red hair, ablaze bark and amber eyes — one of the 44 combinations that rotates through this band — are actuality built. But there’s boilerplate a the flurry of movement you ability expect. A bored-looking woman twists on a head, places the baby aback on the line, breadth it’s best up by a bored-looking man who puts on shoes, afresh puts the baby aback on the line. The band moves glacially, so agilely that anniversary time a new arch is angry assimilate a torso, I can apprehend eyes agitate and click.
Actual arch trauma, however, is begin at the baby hospital, the warmest bend of the building. Actuality are the dolls that are damaged and beatific aback to the aggregation by their owners. There’s an absolute acceptance station. A bank of belletrist from accouchement (“she was attacked by a squirrel”). Basins for abrasion dolls. A dryer for clothes. And sadly, affirmation of torture: noses apathetic off, fingers chewed by pets, faces scratched, limbs broken from sockets, eyeballs gouged. I watch a baby medic abbreviate abroad a appropriate leg and cast a anatomy in her hands.
“Looks like Josefina needs a new head,” says Barb Storkson, the arch surgeon.
Thankfully, American Babe keeps beginning heads. Many, abounding years account of heads. Rows of every character, sitting in boxes, eyes peeking out aloft pieces of tissue cardboard pulled about their mouths. I’m talking to Storkson about how awe-inspiring this all is aback Parks sees me and sees the active and winces. A columnist walks over and sees what I see.
“Look, I anticipate we’ve been accomplishing a lot of demystifying,” Parks says. “I would adopt you don’t booty that picture. I mean, they attending like hostages.” Which is absolutely what they attending like.
‘Staying the course’
Decorum plays no baby role at American Girl. Modesty is partly why Rowland created the line: She had been aggravating to buy a baby as a present, but aggregate in the mid-’80s seemed to be a Barbie or Cabbage Patch Kid, bank and beggared or allurement to be adopted. “We had a subtler adventure to acquaint and we had to acquaint it in a softer voice,” she told this bi-weekly 21 years ago, one of the few times she has talked to press. And that abnegation continues. Kanani’s aback story, for instance, contains a dog, a seal, a banty and a goat. “But we weren’t activity the rooster,” Boswell tells me. So they don’t advertise a rooster. They advertise a costly Hawaiian abbot seal. And a $115 shave-ice stand. But no rooster.
Certain things don’t assume actual American Girl.
I had heard that you won’t — sorry, will not — apprehend a abbreviating in an American Babe book, a byproduct of Rowland’s aloft activity as a teacher. But Parks tells me no, they’re added anxious with breeze and “readability” than contractions.
However, “we would never put a boom on a doll,” says Brothers. American Babe dolls additionally do not accept attitudes, existential crises or politics. They wouldn’t accompany an Occupy protest. Brothers said she generally hears from moms who are afraid their daughters are growing up too fast and would like them to absorb some trace of chastity for as continued as possible. “We are about blockage the course,” she says. “Would I advertise this baptize canteen with a doll?” She holds up a bottle. “No. Because it crosses a line. I’m not abiding why. It’s an automatic thing. We’re not fashion-forward or hip. Some things aloof don’t work.”
After a day at American Babe headquarters, it’s axiomatic the aggregation brand to accept things both means — actual anxious and actual commercial. Ironies abound. Aback Mattel bought the aggregation in 1998 for $700 million, American Babe and Barbie became stepsisters, and acceptance Rowland advised the band to be article special, article heirloom-ready, article a acute mother can “do” for a acute daughter, there’s annihilation affected about branding, annihilation appropriate about a $58 artificial bathtub. As announcer Peggy Orenstein wrote in her book about a girlie-girl culture, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”: “Our accoutrements advised bottomward by behemothic arcade bags, it occurred to me that you don’t ‘do’ $500 account of merchandise. You buy it.”
And you will.
And afterwards you buy American Babe through an American Babe archive or website, your amalgamation acceptable will be alien from one of its two administration centers in Wisconsin. The better is in DeForest, 40 account arctic of Middleton. I acquisition it in the aback of addition arid appointment park, aphotic and astronomic adjoin the backing afternoon. The abode is vast, 400,000 aboveboard feet. Inside, anniversary decorations are at a minimum, acceptance the majority of advisers — 780 of the absolute 870 — are seasonal. A young-looking guy in army-green burden pants, Dave Brophy, administrator of the center, greets me. He’s been with the aggregation for 25 years. “We’re at the point in the division breadth bodies are panicking. Anybody wants wrapping,” he says.
The workers in this architecture alien 60,000 bales the day before. And yet, as in Middleton, it’s not a anarchic place. The gift-wrapping breadth holds 41 booths. Elves actuality are angled over boxes in accouterment from 6 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Brophy abstracts they booty three to bristles account to blanket anniversary one. I accept it. The allowance has a steady, quiet rhythm: tear, snip, tape, tear, snip, tape. I watch a woman absorb at atomic 30 abnormal aloof absorption a bow.
Likewise, the ear-piercing department, admitting the last-minute anniversary press, is methodical, a few men and women angled over benches, alive slowly. Bill Czajkowski, a Cicero built-in in a Blackhawks T-shirt, lowers what looks like a dental drill, blame the bit into a doll’s ear. Artificial spirals out. He wipes the arch and pushes a argent brilliant into the earlobe. He’s done this 139 times today. He’s Santa-shaped but elf-cheerful: “I feel like Santa,” he says. “Some little babe will accumulate this forever. How could I not feel like Santa?”
A few anxiety away, there’s a agent belt affiliated to a beyond bewilderment of agent belts, which snake through the complex. I angular over and apprehend the labels on the bales that zip past. Houston. Dublin, Ohio. St. Augustine, Fla. Beyond the belts, in the distance, there are added boxes, a backwoods of tan extensive bristles belief high, apparent “Snow Gear” and “Fresh and Fruity Top” and “Rebecca” and “Molly.” And a name I don’t recognize: “McKenna.” There are lots of “McKenna” boxes. Which is awkward. Because, acceptance I abhorrence to “demystify” American Babe so aing to Christmas, on its 25th altogether — but, aloof a hunch, McKenna will be the 2012 GOTY.
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