I have been a fan of American Girl since 1996. I have been a historian for years. (Wow, time flies).
American Girl, LLC, while being a company that prides itself on its historical line of dolls, haven’t always been historically accurate when it came to their dolls. Kirsten with bangs? That was never a trend in the 1800s. The new Beforever re-vamp really shows them stretching things a bit. They have Samantha and Caroline sporting modern-styled headbands…
I’m not the type of fan that glosses over everything related to American Girl just because I’m a fan of American Girl, and if you’ve been following my blog, you know that.
Just check out my Beforever article. Click Me.
But I have to disagree that the stories themselves are inaccurate. I’ve found all of the stories to be as close to historically accurate that it can be for nine year olds. It has only been guilty of glossing over greater issues. But considering most of life in the books is from the mind of a nine year old, it’s pretty accurate. It would be less accurate for nine year olds to go through many of the experiences many adults went through (For instance, it would be unrealistic to put a nine year old like Molly in the middle of a battle in Germany during the actual D-day invasion). Sure, many things happened in the stories that seemed far-fetched. But some of the adventures have been based on real-life events that some young people have experienced. It is fiction, but any other additions that are historical have been pretty accurate.
The biggest controversy that many people throw at me is Samantha’s Era. Many people believe it was inaccurate for American Girl to label her as “Victorian” when Queen Victoria had died in 1901 and King Edward was ruling.
Many support that argument by claiming that the the social culture, even Samantha’s attitude, is more “Edwardian” than Victorian. While some may recognize that Grandmary’s home was old-fashioned and Victorian, they believe that Samantha herself was more properly Edwardian, as well as her environment.
This would be historically false.
Whoever has been teaching anyone that needs to be fired. The rule of King Edward is not apart of American History, and thus is not an era in the American nation. How are we supposed to teach the world American history when we are throwing around this false information? Perhaps people from the U.K. are the ones spreading this around, associating the time frame with the era that was relevant with the history of their nation.
Before you strike, please understand that difference between the rule of Victoria (1837-1901), the Victorian Era, and “American Victorianism”.
Unlike when King Edward was ruling, when Queen Victoria was ruling, she sparked many social-cultural trends in Europe that eventually began to influence America. It became known as “American Victorianism”. It was an off-shoot of the European Victorian period lifestyle, which means it was kind of a bogus or reject version. This cultural influence was not to necessarily define Victoria’s reign itself (because why would Americans care who is ruling another country?). It came simply from fascination with her lifestyle and the lifestyles of MANY other European nations. This is the difference between the way England experienced the Victorian era and the way Americans experienced it. It was not to honor Queen Victoria as the ruler, but to utilize her lifestyle as a model for social-cultural reasons. During this era, the wealthy wanted to distinguish themselves from the growing middle class. The era emphasized the battle between the two major upper-classes in America, and emphasized the shift from inherited wealth to self-made wealth.
In other words, the American Victorian era did not reflect the true English Victorian era.
To add, the American Victorian era didn’t just reflect ENGLAND’s lifestyle. And that’s what makes American Victorianism so different from Victoria’s actual reign and England’s Victorian era. America’s Victorian era also came from the influence of France as well! Please read the following page:
Basically, the Victorian Era for AMERICANS focused on “old money” (people who inherit wealth rather than work for it) individuals who were uncertain with their American identity, as this began shortly after the Second War of Independence and lasted from the 1840’s up until around 1914. That uncertainty showed heavily. “Old Money” Americans began to show interest in “richer” cultures. They borrowed heavily from European culture. The first nation they borrowed from was England, hence why the term was coined. But they “borrowed” more social-cultural trends from FRANCE than they did from England throughout it all! Though Victoria was the inspiration behind the coined era title, she isn’t exactly what the Victorian Era in America is all about. France’s culture was actually more influential in this era. “Old money” people ate French foods, imported goods from France, drank french wines, and even spoke French! Nothing to do with England, but still a part of the Victorian era in AMERICA. For some of you who went around thinking that the rulership of a queen defined this American period, you’d be shocked to find so many other influences marking the Victorian period in America. The one thing they did adopt from England, however, was their “proper” rules of etiquette. This was a very distinct characteristic of this period, and why England is so associated with the period. But again, many other trends came from France.
If you people remember Samantha Learns a Lesson, Samantha and the other girls in her classroom were expected to learn French! This was a part of American Victorianism. To learn French was obviously not a trend in England. It came from France.
Another part of American Victorianism was influenced by Asia as well, another continent known to have “rich” cultures. Many wealthy elites imported goods from Asia as well! Japan was particularly a fascination. Kimonos became a heavy part of the culture. Japanese screens were also popular in this period. I believe Samantha’s doll-sized room scene had a screen designed on the far left. India and China also had goods that were of interest to the elite. Pajamas originated in India from traditional Indian fashion! This is why the doll Nellie is marketed with pajamas. Really, the American Victorian era was not only “English”-inspired.
There were many other trends that marked American Victorianism, made it different from Victoria’s literal reign, and different from England’s Victorian era. Unlike in Europe, American Victorianism was mostly about the wealthy competing with one another. The upper-class Americans funded the arts through donations to emphasize their status and power. The wealthy were patrons that donated money to found opera houses, symphony orchestras, and art museums. One of those Opera Houses might have been the inspiration for the Opera House mentioned in Samantha Learns a Lesson, where she gave her speech on Progress in America.
So many of the wealthy competed with one another, trying to make one seem more wealthy than the other. Europe did not have this problem, as all arts were funded by the government. They also didn’t have the same problem with their growing middle class (They had their own social issues). So competition did not mark European wealth or European Victorianism. It only marked “Victorian” wealthy classes in America.
The other difference between the era honoring Queen Victoria’s reign in England and American Victorianism is that it first began to influence America in the 1840s, not EXACTLY at the time Victoria took the throne in 1837. That’s not how influence works. It just doesn’t show up the moment someone becomes a ruler. It grows over time until it reaches beyond the borders. It also just doesn’t end abruptly, just because someone suddenly dies. Influence spreads and is hard to clean out when it’s all over. One event really can’t bring in a whole era without a series of events following after it, so equally, one event can’t kill an era. There needs to be a series of new events to kill an old era. That’s how powerful and influential eras are.
The American Victorian era began a bit after Victoria was crowned and ALSO ended a bit after her death. American Victorianism officially died in 1914. On the page above, scroll down to Poverty and Immigration. Massive Immigration marked the American Victorian era as well, something that had nothing to do with the reign of Victoria or Victorianism in England. And that wave is said to have ended when? In 1914.
This book, published about 1904 America, is properly coined “Victorian” by historians, no matter what was going on in England: Gertrude Jekyll’s Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories (1904).
Many “Victorian-style” homes were built in 1904 as well. One Victorian-styled home was built by a doctor in 1904. It was specifically named Victorian. And this is not out of ignorance. Victoria still had major influence on America in 1904, despite her death just three years before! Do you think they just tore these homes down and immediately got rid of their decorations, just because she passed away? And an old-fashioned woman like Grandmary certainly would’ve kept her home and household as it had been for years: Victorian.
The influence of Victorian America expanded cities in the nation, especially New York City, the setting for two of Samantha’s stories. The influence of the American Victorian era’s expansion didn’t just end when Queen Victoria died. New York City STILL remained a big city, still continued to grow even after her reign, and it still housed the great number of immigrants. This is all considered a part of American Victorianism.
The Industrial Revolution had a lot to do with American Victorianism in the 1800s, but the body of “new rich” (people who made money from business, hard work, and genius ideas) were threatening the status of the “old rich” (people who were rich simply because they inherited it from a family member), and this influenced the American Victorian era more distinctly. The two rich classes were culturally different and they were in great conflict.
And this is where Samantha’s story comes in. The “old money” developed a “society” made up of “proper families”, as quoted from the above page. But the new rich could not easily join the “society”, which was the point. Most of the “new money” came from poor families, and the “old money” didn’t want to integrate with them. The Industrial Revolution in America helped poor families make more money, moving them up in the social ranks.
Towards the end of the Victorian era, the youngsters of this era were getting tired of old “Victorian values” and society’s restrictions.
The new generation was in fact getting tired of it after the upheaval of the Civil War in the 1860s. But after Queen Victoria’s death and the onset of World War I, that’s when it really died. The world no longer seemed so glamorous. During World War I, all connections with other nations were closed off, not allowing any immigrants into the nation. This also limited the amount of imported goods that could come into the nation. Thus, the final end of the Victorian era. Americans finally began to form an identity of their own rather than be led by European and Asian cultural values.
This is what Samantha’s personality represents. She steps in to represent the new generation that questioned American Victorianism, and the generation that brought about sweeping changes in the nation. Uncle Gard is also considered young, and so is Cornelia. They represent the new era that was gradually rising.
Though it’s debatable whether we should call the era Victorian or not, that “new” era rising in America was not called the “Edwardian Era”. King Edward had just become King, and therefore, could not have made that much of an impact in the beginning of his reign. Even if he eventually flourished in England, England’s values no longer had much of an influence on America. King Edward never flourished any trends in America. Any trends that even hinted to be “English” were the aftermath of the Victorian era. If you do deeper research, there is no such thing as an Edwardian Era in America. You really don’t even have to dig that deep.
The Edwardian Era is a part of WORLD history, but not American history. There is a difference. Just like the American Civil War is a part of American history, but do you really think that’s a part of England’s history? No. They had their own Civil Wars.
The Digital Revolution is a lot like the Victorian Era. The Digital Revolution is influencing the world as we speak, and will be a part of everyone’s history. But how that era is experienced, how long it lasts, and when it even all began varies according to nation. The Victorian era was similar.
What was that era called that the “new wealth” brought in? It was called the Progressive Era, and Samantha’s story takes place smack in the middle of it.
The Progressive Era began in the 1890s, and was flourishing even when Queen Victoria was alive. By Samantha’s time, it was slowly taking over Victorian values. Samantha’s stories highlight the conflicting attitudes between the dying Victorian Era and the new Progressive Era. This conflict continued, really, until around WWI. Most historians consider it’s final death to be 1914. These two conflicting cultures greatly influenced Samantha’s life, often causing her confusion as to what is right. Her personality really reflects much of the uncertainty of the nation itself, as it struggled to find an identity in the middle of all of these changes.
Just as people were slowly losing interest in European culture, what we eventually see is Grandmary slowly moving away from her own Victorian values (the Victorian era being an era that reflected a time when Americans defined themselves by foreign nations) to a more American Progressive society (where Americans were beginning to form their own identity as a nation). The American Progressive way of thinking believed in progress and helping the underprivileged.
Many social changes were a part of American Victorianism. We saw Dorothea Dix trying to help the mentally ill. We saw laws making it mandatory for children to be in school. There were many social changes made during this period. And even though all of these social changes weren’t necessarily created in 1904, all of the efforts of these movements were at their strongest by Samantha’s time, making 1904 the perfect time to express the bridge between Victorian values and Progressive America. The Victorian way of thinking didn’t mind finding work for immigrants, but they kept separate lives from those who were not of their “class”. The Progressive way of thinking sought to encourage self-made wealth, which can put any poor man in a wealthy position if he worked hard enough. This was EXTREMELY different from the era that marked King Edward’s rule in England, and they were not linked.
The conflicts of this era were evident between Grandmary’s way of handling Nellie’s friendship with Samantha, and how Uncle Gard, the more progressive man, handled their relationship. When Samantha asked Grandmary in Samantha Learns a Lesson (a book we could all learn a lesson from), “Why won’t Edith Eddelton’s mother let her play with Nellie?” Grandmary’s response was in simple Victorian fashion: “Why, Edith Eddleton is a young LADY”. Something like that. Samantha then tells Grandmary, “But you let me play with Nellie.” Grandmary then states, in typical Victorian fashion, “You are not playing with Nellie, you are helping Nellie. There’s a difference.” The chapter then ends by saying that Samantha didn’t like that difference. Which seems like something a 9 year old, who usually is more unaware of social classes, would think and feel.
Uncle Gard and Cornelia, however, show more American Progressive attitudes. They adopt Nellie, where Grandmary just simply found work for Nellie and her family. They presented two different solutions to the same problem. Though the fashions, huge Christmases, and glamorous displays of wealth from the Victorian era still traveled into the Turn of the Twentieth Century for many of the wealthy (because you just can’t get rid of clothes and houses, and not just because a Queen has died), IDEAS were starting to change.
You still don’t get the picture? Still don’t understand why Samantha can appropriately be called “Victorian” as well as “Progressive?” Still don’t understand how she can be Victorian even after the death of a faraway queen? Still don’t understand why the Edwardian Period never existed in America?
Let me share an example of how this can occur. Most American Girl fans consider Molly the “WWII era” doll. When most Americans think of WWII, they think of the 1940s, correct? WELL, WWII had been going on around the world since the 1930s! Did you know that the Italians first invaded Ethiopia in 1935? Though the actual war was declared in 1939, many invasions happened throughout the mid to late 1930s. For many people around the world, they define the WWII era as the 1930s! Hitler became the Chancellor in 1933! It was then that political scientists predicted another “Great War” was on the way. For many overseas, Kit would be more appropriately called the WWII era girl. So why do Americans only associate the times from 1941-1945 as WWII? Because that is the time when America was most influenced by the war. ALL of the 1940s can be considered apart of the WWII era, even though the war was over in 1945! This is because there is always an aftermath. The war just doesn’t affect one period of time, end, and then the effects from it disappear. The influence of the war was much deeper than that. WWII changed things, during and after the war. Women had to give their jobs back to men, they had to reconstruct their families after years without loved ones, and they had to replace worn things in their homes with all the things they couldn’t get because of the war. Though this is post-WWII, it is still considered a part of the era. Do you understand how eras work now? If you don’t, leave me a comment and we can discuss further.
The confusion comes when you confuse an era with an event. An event is different from an era, though events often lead to eras. An event would be WWII, the Yellow Fever Epidemic (this is why I never considered MG and C to have their own era), or the crowning of Queen Victoria and her reign. An ERA is a period of time that is usually marked by not only events, but distinctive characteristics, changes on the earth, and so many other things. Events don’t define an era exclusively, and this is why the death of Victoria did not end the era. In fact, it became an event that was a part of that era. Thus, also, the crowning of King Edward did not just cut the Victorian era in America short.
As I also mentioned before, you wouldn’t call an 1860s historical doll representing England’s history a “Civil War” era doll. There was no Civil War in England at that time and the Civil War in America did not greatly influence England’s history beyond hearing news about it. You equally wouldn’t call Samantha an “Edwardian Era” doll just because Edward is King in England. If it doesn’t affect America, it is not apart of American history.
So, what is my conclusion? It is incorrect to call Samantha the “Edwardian period doll”. Any real historian will LAUGH at you. You can correctly call her Victorian, that is not inaccurate according to AMERICAN HISTORY. American Victorianism was not directly influenced by Queen Victoria alone, but all European nations, some Asian nations, and a desire for the “old wealth” of America to feel more important than the “new wealth”. That is nothing like the Victorian era in England, which was mostly marked by national self-confidence, peace, and prosperity, not wealthy conflicts…And there was no true peace in America during the American Victorian period. The Civil War erupted during this time, which disrupted the “peace”.
Samantha appropriately represents the shift from the American Victorian period to Progressive America. It would also be appropriate to call her the “Turn of the Twentieth Century” girl as well. Either one is historically correct.
Edwardian is NOT.
Leave me a comment and let me know what you think. If you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, leave me a comment, and I will gladly give more supporting evidence.