A doll that says it all

Observations on America

Walk down Chicago's Magnificent Mile, the city's glitziest shopping stretch, and you will find yourself dodging hordes of little girls clutching big red bags. They have been visiting American Girl Place, a multi-storey shop-cum-experience built around a line of dolls that is captivating American girldom and which speaks volumes about the country's self-image.

Priced from $87 each (about £45), the dolls represent different eras in US history. Kit, for example, is a "clever and resourceful" girl from the Depression years; Elizabeth, "merry and faithful", is from colonial Virginia; Addy is the daughter of a civil war slave; and Josefina is the Hispanic-American rancher "whose heart and hopes are as big as the New Mexico sky".

They all have stories, told in books, and as with Barbie there are accessories: Josefina's herb-gathering outfit costs $24, and for $30 you can buy an American Girl wheelchair. If you want the fuller experience there is a live American Girl Revue, a hair salon dispensing $20 haircuts (to the dolls) and a fin-de-siècle-style café.

The brand is booming. Started in 1986 by Pleasant T Rowland, a former teacher, it has since shifted more than 12 million dolls and 111 million books. (Rowland sold the company six years ago to Mattel, the makers of Barbie, for $700m.)

American Girl taps into a wartime yearning for patriotic nostalgia, but also into the country's fears for its daughters' ever-shrinking girlhoods. Their ankles and waists reassuringly thick, their values homespun (they battle slavery and poverty), the dolls are an antidote to all those Britney Spears wannabes.

"We come from a point of real sincerity in wanting to give girls something more - something that can make a real difference in their lives," says a company spokeswoman. "And we know their parents appreciate that and trust us to do right by their daughters. Parents who shop with us know that American Girl is something they can do for their daughters."

The dolls project an American dream unsapped by terrorism and tax cuts. Each year a Girl of the Year is issued to "demonstrate to girls that there is no limit to what they can accomplish". (This year's has a $65 scooter and archaeologist parents.) Barbie sales are falling despite revamps that included breast reductions and a doctor outfit. In a world of wars and global warming, it seems that America's girls are taking refuge in make-believe set in simpler times.