Collectible American Girl Dolls: An Insider's Guide

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I INTRODUCTION   "White body", "pre-Mattel", and "artist mark"are words used in describing the popular 18" American Girl dolls.  But, what do these terms mean?  Are they even important?  This guide will define these terms as well as others, and is designed to help you figure out what to look for when searching for a collectible American Girl doll.  Specifically, this guide will teach you ways to estimate the relative age of the dolls and will provide you with questions to ask in order to increase your chances of getting a doll in collectible condition.  The guide focuses on the first four American Girl dolls from the historical collection---Molly McIntire, Samantha Parkington, Kirsten Larson and Felicity Merriman.  

     The first three American Girl dolls were released in Fall of 1986 by Pleasant Company, which was founded by its namesake, educator Pleasant T. Rowland.  It is not difficult to find published information on the history of the company and how Ms. Rowland generated her initial ideas, so this guide will instead focus on the specifics of differentiating the older, collectible dolls.

     Why are these dolls so collectible?  Aside from being well made and very appealing, the collectibility of these dolls is probably most related to the fact that in 1998 Pleasant Company was sold to Mattel, Inc.  Many collectors believe that there is a noticeable difference in the quality of the dolls and some of the doll accessories since Ms. Rowland's retirement from the board in 2000.

     Like anything that is no longer made or available, the items produced by Pleasant Company (rather than Mattel), tend to be more collectible. These items are commonly referred to as "pre-Mattel" (sometimes abbreviated as PM).  The stock of American Girl items did not change overnight in 1998 when Mattel purchased Pleasant Company.  However, as items in stock were gradually depleted, new stock was tagged "American Girl" rather than "Pleasant Company". In some cases, certain accessories were discontinued altogether.  

     To make things more confusing, there are some notable differences within the historical dolls that were produced by Pleasant Company prior to 1998.  These differences are beyond the scope of this guide and will be covered in a separate guide.  

II   DETERMINING THE RELATIVE AGE OF THE DOLL    It appears that the earliest made German dolls are the most sought after.  BUT, how can you know where and when a specific doll was made?  You really cannot know for sure unless you come across a doll being sold by the original owner who still has the hangtag and/or receipt OR if you find a doll signed and numbered by Pleasant Rowland with the corresponding certificate of authenticity.  Since both of these circumstances are somewhat rare (but can and do happen on e-bay), there are other things to look for to help estimate the age of the historical dolls. For more detailed information on signed dolls, please see my guide entitled Signed American Girl dolls

                           Molly Doll signed by 
                                  Pleasant T. Rowland with Accompanying Certificate of Authenticity

A. Hangtags  

 The earliest made American Girl dolls were initially manufactured for Pleasant Company by the German doll maker Goetz.  Goetz had factories in West Germany, Hungary, Post Berlin Wall Germany, and Baldwinsville, NY.   As a result, original paper hangtags for the older dolls indicate that a doll was made in West Germany, Germany or USA.                 

   Although Hungary does not appear on the hangtags as a country of production, some of the dolls do come in clothing that is tagged "made in Hungary" and dated in the early 1990's.  At some unknown point in the 1990's, manufacturing of the dolls began in China.

     Some of the doll boxes (beginning in the mid 1990s) also have a sticker on them that say things such as:  "made in China, Germany, USA."   It is likely that doll parts were manufactured in different locations (e.g. heads in one factory, bodies in another) and then assembled in yet another location.  Pinpointing a country of origin for a specific American Girl doll is very difficult.  An original hangtag may identify where the doll was made but it still does not indicate the year in which the doll was made.

B.  Dates on Clothing Tags 

Each historical doll is sold in a signature outfit referred to as the "meet outfit".  

 

Meet outfits made before 1998 often have tags listing a year and country of production.  Many people rely on this information to determine when and where a doll was made. This is not an accurate way of aging the doll for at least two reasons.  First, unless you are the original owner of the doll, you cannot know whether or not the dress is original to the doll.  Second, and  more important, the year on the clothing tag of the meet dresses is related to the copyright of the character rather than to the date of the doll's production.  

The first meet dresses for Samantha, Molly and Kirsten say "made in West Germany for Pleasant Company, 1986". Dolls made from 1986 through the early 1990s wear clothing tagged in this way. No meet dresses bear tags dated 1987 through 1991 despite the fact that dolls were still manufactured in each of those years.  So, just because a doll is wearing a dress tagged 1986, it does not mean that the doll was made in 1986.

   The clothing tag issue gets further confusing when researching the Felicity doll and examining her original meet dress, the rose garden gown.  Felicity was not introduced until 1991, however there are no meet dresses tagged 1991.  The earliest tagged Felicity meet dresses indicate that they were made in West Germany in 1986.   The next date which appears on Felicity's meet dress is 1993 (update 5/30/06 - just saw a rose dress tagged "made in China for Pleasant Co, 1989").  It is believed that the first Felicity dolls released in 1991 wore the 1986 tagged rose garden dresses.  This same issue arises with the fifth historical doll released in 1993, Addy Walker.  Although most of her meet dresses are tagged 1993, there are some that are tagged 1986.

     Rumors have floated that test lots were conducted on both of these dolls in 1986.  However, there is no proof that any such test lot existed.  It is more likely that the same tags used for the meet dresses of the first three historical dolls, were used for these dolls as well. (update March,'08: I have recently discussed this issue with a former Pleasant Company employee who worked at Pleasant Company in the early 1990's in an upper position which reported directly to Pleasant Rowland.  This employee confirmed that there were no Felicity test lots in 1986).

C. White Body verses Tan Body 

As stated before, Samantha, Molly and Kirsten were the first historical dolls introduced in 1986.  All of the dolls made from 1986 until sometime in 1991 had untagged white muslin bodies (also called "white body").  The change to tan fabric occurred because of the lower neckline fashions worn by Felicity. As a result, if a doll has a tan cloth body, it cannot have been made any earlier than 1990 (even though it may have come in a meet dress tagged 1986).   If a doll has a white muslin body however, you can be sure that it was made sometime between 1986 and 1991.  Update: Just received an email (3/4/10)  from an e-bay member with the following information: "I purchased and received one (a Samantha doll)  directly from PC in 1990 that had a tan body and it must have been made sometime during 1990 or even late 1989, well before Felicity."

                             WHITE BODY     TAN BODY

D.  Body Tags  

Dolls made in the late 1990's have a tag sewn to the side of the cloth body which states: "Made in China Exclusively for American Girl,  Middleton, WI 53562". The majority of dolls made before 1998 do NOT have a body tag.  However, there are some Molly, Kirsten, Samantha, Felicity and Addy dolls which have a body tag stating "made in West Germany for Pleasant Company, 1986".  These tags are a bit of a mystery.  The dolls on which these tags appear all have tan bodies so they cannot possibly have been made in 1986---- only white body dolls were made in the 1980s.  No white body dolls have body tags.   It appears then, that similar to the dress meet tags, body tags are not a good indicator of a specific year of production. However, they do help indicate whether a doll is pre or post Mattel.  Dolls with body tags that say "made in China for American Girl" are not pre-Mattel dolls whereas dolls with body tags that say "made for Pleasant Company" are pre-Mattel dolls.


E.  Neckstamps   

There is some belief that a better way to determine an approximate age of the doll is by examining the neck stamp.  This is the copyright stamp on the back of the neck of all American Girl dolls.  Up until 2005 the neck stamp said " (c)Pleasant Company." In 2005 the emergence of a new neck stamp "(c)American Girl LLC" can be seen on some of the dolls.

    When examining the neck stamps, many differences can be seen in the fonts and lettering used on the older dolls.    The older dolls have more uneven lettering that has a less typeset look.  In some cases the letters are arched.  Some of the neck stamps are very large and some are very small with uneven letters.  In some cases the copyright symbol is above the lettering and in other cases it falls before the lettering. While there is no way to attach a certain neck stamp to a specific factory or year of production (each factory went through many molds during any given year), there is a general progression of the neck stamps over time. 

     The neck stamps on dolls sold from 1986 through the early 1990s have the more uneven lettering - sometimes arched, sometimes large, sometimes small.  In the mid 1990s the neck stamp became more uniform but the word Pleasant was often not lined up perfectly with the word Company.  In some cases individual letters were not straight (especially  the l and the s).  By the late 1990s the typeset was quite perfect and many times additional numbers and letters appear  underneath Pleasant Company.

 The Pleasant Company neckstamp continues to appear on the dolls even after Mattel purchased the company in 1998. Some people WRONGLY assume that a Pleasant Company neckstamp indicates a pre-Mattel doll. For instance, you could buy a Kaya doll today that has a Pleasant Company stamp on her neck, BUT she wasn't introduced until 2002 and has a side tag on her body that says American Girl.   It is impossible to buy a pre Mattel Kaya because she didn't exist prior to 1998.

F.  Artist Mark  

     In addition to the neck stamp, many dolls also have an additional mark which is found at the hairline toward the doll's right ear (looks a bit like #@).  This is called the artist mark or designer mark and is actually the mark of the designer of the original head mold.                                                   

     The presence of this mark is very random as it can be found on some old dolls made in West Germany, brand new dolls made in China, and signed dolls.  However, it is also absent on some old dolls, signed dolls and new dolls. Despite a lot of attention that is given to it, this mark does nothing to help in the aging of a doll or in the determination of the country in which it was produced.

G. Eyelashes, Neckstrings and More 

 In general there are certain characteristics of the older dolls that have changed over time. Older dolls often have longer, softer eyelashes that are lighter in color.  The neck strings---the strings that attach the head to the body, are sometimes flat or longer than more recent neck strings.  Some of the characters have variations in hair color (e.g. the earliest Felicity dolls had  more copper colored hair and the earlier Samantha dolls had lighter brown hair).  The vinyl used for the older doll heads and limbs is a bit softer and more pliable. In many cases the doll face molds seem to have fuller cheeks. 

     Often these differences can be very subtle and difficult to pinpoint unless holding the doll in person or seeing an older doll along side a newer doll. For more information on differences see my guide,  American Girl Felicity: Then & Now .

III   QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE BIDDING ON A DOLL  The early American Girl dolls are becoming more and more valuable with each passing year.  It is not unheard of for individual dolls to sell at auction for hundreds of dollars.  Pristine signed dolls have been sold for much more.  Of course, you can also get wonderful deals on the very same types of dolls.

      Doll descriptions are subjective. To improve your chances of getting the doll you want in good condition, ask the following types of questions:

  • Is the doll's cloth body white or tan?
  • Are there any holes in the cloth?                                                  
  • Are there any chew marks on the limbs or marks on the vinyl?                                                                                           
  • Has the doll's hair been cut?
  • Are any of the eyelashes missing?
  • Can the doll stand unassisted?
  • Does the doll have "silver eye" --- a defect in one or both of the eyes in which the pupils can become tiny or the colored portion of the eye separates and discolors to a bright silver color?

                                                               

  • Has the neck string been cut? If the seller says that there is a plastic ring instead of a neck string, this may indicate that the doll has been sent to the American Girl Hospital and has received a brand new head. You may want to ask if the seller knows if the doll was sent to the hospital for a new head.  Apparently, there may have been a short period of time recently when the company sold some dolls with these plastic rings (an e-bay member wrote to let me know that her AGOT  #GT21 came new with the plastic ring).  While it is always nice to get something new, keep in mind that by replacing the old head with a new one, the doll is no longer considered an older, pre-Mattel doll.
  • Does the doll have an "x" mark on it's rump?  If so, this means that the doll was a returned item or a second quality item  which was sold either at the American Girl Outlet or at the annual Benefit Sale in Wisconsin.
  •  Is the seller the original owner?  If so, does the seller know when the doll was purchased?

Keep in mind that not everyone will be able to answer these questions---if a seller doesn't know what silver eye is or can't figure out what you mean about the body color, you can always refer them to this guide to help get a better description. 

 

 

 

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