Pleasant Rowland’s Pleasant Company was a major risk: pricey toys and books for pre-teen girls that taught them about history
BY LAURA LARRIMORE
Pleasant Rowland’s 1984 visit to the meticulously recreated historic park in Williamsburg, Virginia, enchanted her.
“I loved the costumes, the homes, the accessories of everyday life. All of it completely engaged me,” she recalled in a 2002 Fortune Small Business magazine article.
The 45-year-old former teacher and successful textbook author had gone with her husband to a conference.
“I remember sitting on a bench in the shade, reflecting on what a poor job schools do of teaching history … was there some way I could bring history alive for them, the way Williamsburg had for me?” Rowland said.
She dashed off a postcard to fellow children’s author Valerie Tripp. Thirty-five years later, Rowland recalled how that postcard outlined the key ideas of what would become The American Girls Collection® brand of dolls.
Teacher, textbook author
Few people know the company Rowland is famous for founding was actually her “third career,” critically informed by her earlier work as a teacher and educator.
After graduating from Wells College in Aurora, New York, Rowland began teaching second-grade students at Mattapan Elementary in Massachusetts. Through research and experimentation, she constructed what she called her own “cobbled-together” pedagogy to help her pupils learn to read better.
Those materials eventually turned into a program called Beginning to Read, Write, and Listen, published in 1971 by J.B. Lippincott. Rowland authored dozens of short and colorful alphabet books that are still published by McGraw-Hill.
“It was the first academic kindergarten curriculum ever published and has been in continual use for 40 years,” she said in a speech to educators in 2011. “Beginning also launched me on my second career as a textbook author. Based on its success, Addison-Wesley, another school publisher, approached me about writing a basal reading and language arts program.”
From 1973 to 1978, Rowland developed and oversaw the Addison-Wesley Reading Program. But in 1981, the publishers decided to return the company to its original focus of math and science textbooks.
Historical dolls? ‘Are you kidding?’
As she considered where to apply her considerable energy and vision next, the trip to Williamsburg became one of two events that propelled her toward her new career as an entrepreneur and famous toy mogul.
The second catalyzing event happened that winter, when Rowland was searching for dolls to give her 8- and 10-year-old nieces for Christmas. Surveying the toy shelves full of plastic Barbie® dolls in flashy outfits and the scrunched-faced, yarn-haired Cabbage Patch Kids®, she couldn’t find something she wanted to buy—well made, meaningful, and ideally something educational.
What if there was a line of high-quality toys and books that inspired pre-teen girls to learn about history?
But when she met with marketers and manufacturers, Rowland recalled being met with disbelief. “Are you kidding? Historical dolls in the day and age of Barbie?”
Her original doll design was based on a defective, cross-eyed doll, dug out from a dusty back storeroom in a Chicago Marshall Field’s department store by a friend. She found the manufacturing label sewn into the doll’s underpants, reading, “Gotz Puppenfabrik, Rodental, West Germany” and soon was on a plane to Europe to discuss production.
“In one weekend, I wrote out the concept in great detail. I defined the first three characters, the product line, the series of books, the matching girls’ clothing, the retail store concept, even the idea for a musical,” she said.
High quality and prices
The 18-inch American Girl dolls would be sold via mail order catalog, not in toy stores. They would be heirloom pieces and sold at prices to match.
They would have sturdy, childlike bodies and glossy hair that girls could style. There would be a line of carefully crafted, historically inspired accessories and clothes to collect, aligned with each girl’s adventures told in their storybooks. The six books that accompanied the dolls would have beautiful illustrations to bring to life each character and her era.
Time periods were researched and carefully selected, book drafts were written and illustrations drawn, and the three dolls, their tiny accessories, and their accompanying advertising were developed for the initial launch.
The concept seemed far-fetched to mainstream retailers who scoffed at the dolls’ $80 price and selling them to 9- to-12-year-olds.
Success and a scare
By fall 1986, Rowland had sunk nearly all the money she had earned from her textbook royalties into the venture—well over $1 million. She had ordered half a million catalogs printed, and submitted a trademark application.
The gamble paid off. Between September and December 1986, American Girl sold $1.7 million worth of product. The second year, the company generated $7.6 million. Sales grew annually.
Rowland remained focused, despite being diagnosed with breast cancer in the company’s third year.
“It was a large tumor and I had a poor prognosis, but throughout chemotherapy and radiation I never missed a day of work, and work is probably what saved me.”
Bringing to market The American Girls Collection® (the trademarked brand name of the six original dolls created by the Pleasant Company®) was the start of Pleasant Rowland’s “third career.”
Making more history
By 1991, sales had reached $50 million. The company began preparing for the launch of its first non-white historical doll, Addy Walker.
Rowland assembled an advisory board of Black historians, educators, and museum directors to help develop Addy. The team decided that Addy’s story should start in the South in 1864, as Addy and her mother plan an escape from slavery. Her story showed a strong, loving family caught up in slavery and helped children consider difficult history in age-appropriate ways.
Pleasant Company continued to grow, releasing the Bitty Baby® dolls and books for younger girls, then launching a new line of modern dolls called American Girl of Today®. Both became registered trademarks in 1996.
By 1998, Rowland had been running the company for over a decade. She had led several product expansions, opened the flagship American Girl Place store in Chicago, and even created a musical based on the historical characters’ adventures, called “American Girl Review.”
Everything she had dreamed up that one weekend, she had fully realized.
She sold American Girl to Mattel for $700 million.
This made Rowland wealthier than beloved American writers Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and Dr. Seuss combined. Since 1986 the company has sold over 160 million books, outpacing the 36 million dolls sold by three to one.
She and her husband established several foundations and began giving generously to community nonprofits, often anonymously.
In 2022, a flood of memes placed American Girl dolls in modern contexts, with the hashtag #AmericanGirlDoll garnering 315 million views on TikTok.
Even 40 years later, Rowland’s vision to educate children and help tweens understand history still remains relevant as a way to understand and engage with our past and present.
Laura Larrimore is a communications program supervisor at the USPTO.
This story was edited for brevity. See the full story at
Each month, the USPTO’s Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs who have made a positive difference in the world.