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Playing Make-Believe

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Pleasant T. Rowland was frustrated. Shopping for a gift for a niece, she was dismayed by the neon frenzy and hype of Barbie dolls and Cabbage Patch Kids. In 1986, Rowland, a former schoolteacher and TV reporter, fought back. She founded the Pleasant Company in Middleton, Wisconsin, to produce a line of historical novels and wholesome dolls for girls ages 7-11. Rowland aimed to inspire girls and to help prolong their golden period of innocent adventuring before periods of a different sort wrest it away.

Pleasant Company began through direct-mail marketing. The line grew and grew. The empire's mission may be "to educate and entertain girls with high-quality products and experiences that reinforce positive social and moral values." But possibly the most important quality a girl can have is access to Grandma's Visa card.

The current 114-page catalog offers more than 30 different dolls, the standard models selling for a piggy-bank-busting $82. And with multiple outfits per doll to choose from, a girl can just go on learning and learning.

Girls are hooked by the relatively inexpensive books, carried in public libraries and schools. The $5.95 books feature one of six historical "heroines," each with her own doll, set of books, outfits (Samantha's Lacy Pinafore Dress and Rosebud Circlet, $22), home accessories (Addy's Ironstone Compote Set, $50), pets (Molly's Playful Pup, $18), scenery (Kirsten's Scenes & Settings, including Powderkeg School, $48), and matching real-girl clothing for her owner (Josefina's Riding Dress, $68; Straw Hat, $35). Harried parents seeking to streamline their educational purchasing can order a "complete collection" for a given character--Felicity's ensemble runs $995 ($80 for gift wrap).

The company has grown to include a series of advice books, theme weekends at historical sites, and a television pilot awaiting broadcast. It also publishes American Girl magazine ($19.95 for six issues). Impressively shying away from crude materialism, the periodical accepts no advertising, depending instead on a subscription base of 700,000. And now, just a skip from the big-girl mecca of Michigan Avenue, Pleasant Company is opening the American Girl Place at 111 E. Chicago, a combination retail showplace, fancy eats cafe, live musical theater, and educational exhibit hall.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that behavior is determined by a hierarchy of needs, beginning early in life with basic biological needs and ascending to more complex psychological motivations. American Girl Place, with statements gleaned from a fancy new press kit, eerily demonstrates how the Pleasant Company can satisfy every girl's needs, from food to fun. Indeed, through the company Pleasant T. Rowland herself may have achieved self-actualization: in June she sold the company to Barbie's mommy, Mattel, for $700 million.

--JOY BERGMANN

MASLOW'S HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

Self-actualization needs: to find self-fulfillment and realize one's potential

Aesthetic needs: symmetry, order, and beauty

Cognitive needs: to know, understand, and explore

Esteem needs: to achieve, be competent, and gain approval and recognition

Belongingness and love needs: to affiliate with others, be accepted, and belong

Safety needs: to feel secure and safe, out of danger

Physiological needs: hunger, thirst, and so forth

AMERICAN GIRL PLACE

"We give girls chocolate cake with vitamins. Our books are exciting, our magazine is fun, and the dolls and accessories are pretty. But more importantly, they give young girls a sense of self and an understanding of where they came from and who they are today."

"At last, the American Girls Collection in its entirety is on display in a beautiful boutique showcasing all of the American Girls and their lovely period clothing, furniture, and accessories."

"A historical exhibit at American Girl Place brings the long-ago worlds of all six characters from the American Girls Collection to life. Corners of their homes have been authentically re-created, allowing girls to imagine themselves in Felicity's colonial parlor, Josefina's adobe sala, Kirsten's log cabin, Addy's humble garret, Samantha's elegant parlor, and Molly's World War Two living room."

"Girls can . . . visit a photo studio to get their picture on the cover of a souvenir issue of American Girl magazine--a personalized memento of a special day at American Girl Place."

"The musical is set at a meeting of a modern-day American Girls Club--a real grassroots phenomenon that takes place in neighborhoods across the country every day."

"In an era when girls are often pressured to mature too quickly, American Girl Place will appeal to parents who seek quality, age-appropriate products and experiences for their daughters. Like the American Girl books, toys, and clothing, American Girl Place is designed for the interests of girls seven and up. In protecting and celebrating this critical stage of girlhood, American Girl fervently urges parents to plan a visit to American Girl Place."

"Upstairs, girls and their guests can enjoy lunch, tea, or dinner . . . in the Cafe. Starched white linens, sparkling silverware, and a bright, fresh, contemporary decor are the setting for fanciful food like chocolate flowerpot pudding, Cinna-minis, and A.G. punch."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited dolls photo.

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