The #'s represent footnotes that could not be included in this blog post. Please contact me if you would like to discuss this study or acquire a copy with complete citations (I recommend this!).
Little Miss America:
Girls and Girlhood in the Little Maid and American Girl Novels
The culture of girlhood in America is deeply infused with girls’ literature. One of the most popular lines of books and toys for girls of the twenty-first century is the American Girls Collection, a line of historically themed books, dolls, clothing, and accessories. Its continuing popularity among young girl consumers and their parents has ensured that American Girl’s influential role in the creation and definition of girls’ culture. However, plucky young heroines have served as role models of American adolescents for well over a century. Daring and clever, optimistic and imaginative, heroines like Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew have been idolized and celebrated by generations of young readers. American Girl may be one of today’s more influential and beloved brands, but its past and continuing success is possible thanks to its predecessors.
In 1913, Penn Publishing Company began to publish the historical fiction novels of Alice Turner Curtis. The Little Maid novels tell the stories of adolescent Colonial girls living up and down the East Coast during the Revolutionary War period. Curtis continued to write the Little Maid series over the next few decades, detailing the adventures of over twenty young American heroines living during the American Revolution.# The novels came at the beginning a boom in publishing, as the production of children’s literature and series fiction became a full-fledged industry. As the years wore on, however, Curtis’s novels fell into obscurity. In the mid-1990s, the small East Coast publishing company, Applewood Books, began to publish reproductions of the Little Maid novels. Today, the books feature a cover illustration from the first editions of Curtis’s novels. Each Little Maid book also contains a paper doll version of its heroine, as well as a second period outfit with which readers can play and act out the heroine’s adventures.
Pleasant Rowland had a similar idea when she created her line of historical fiction novels and their correlating dolls in the mid-1980s. Since its inception, the Pleasant Company (now owned by Mattel, Inc.) has grown to be a toy and series novel empire. The American Girl Collection includes nine sets of books, each chronicling the early adolescence of a young girl during a various historical eras or events American history. The first of the five original dolls was Felicity Merriman, the “spunky” and “spritely” [sic] daughter of a Williamsburg merchant. # The bestselling six-book series about Felicity, written by Valerie Tripp, was one of the founding pieces of the American Girls Collection along with the Felicity doll and her accessories.
A comparison of the Little Maid novels and the American Girl novels presents an interesting dialogue on girlhood and the cultural identity of the ideal American girl. Each series has helped to define and redefine the concept of girlhood in America. A critical reading and analysis of these series novels and their components suggests multiple interesting questions. How does each series define the ideal American girl, and her role in society? What are the shared and differing characteristics of their respective ideal American girls, and how are these characteristics presented to the reader? Also, is the portrayal of girlhood an appropriate and realistic representation of the society’s expectations of adolescent girls? Alice Turner Curtis’s Little Maid historical fiction series presents readers with multiple young heroines who appropriately and happily fulfill the stereotypes of an ideal girl. The identity of Valerie Tripp’s heroine follows the formula laid by Curtis, and Felicity Merriman of the six-book American Girl series is a combination of the ideal girl of the early twentieth century mixed with late twentieth century ideals of a more modern teenage girl. In each novel, the heroine’s identity is defined both by her own actions and the role forced upon her by society. In addition to staple heroine characteristics like obedience and an active imagination, Alice Turner Curtis’s Little Maid and Valerie Tripp’s American Girl novels depict consumerism, conformity, adherence to traditional family values, and an adventuresome independence as other facets of the ideal American girl’s identity.
The mere existence of the Little Maid and American Girl series, as well as the success of America’s girls’ literature industry as a whole, is largely due to the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression. The children’s literature industry has been dominated by the popularity of series fiction for both girls and boys since the late nineteenth century, and continues to be one of the most lucrative genres of mass-market literature. Technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution led to the growth of America’s consumer culture as a whole, providing Americans young and old with more leisure time and extra money. Publishing houses leapt at the chance to produce formulaic and cheaply printed novels for their newest and most lucrative type of consumer: teenage girls in search of entertainment.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, American girls in their early teenage years were a cultural novelty and anomaly. Not children, but not yet women, adolescent girls roughly between the ages of nine and fifteen found themselves to be a sub-group of much interest. Girls’ culture scholar Ilana Nash discusses the many characteristics of early twentieth century America’s ideal girl and girlhood in American Sweethearts. This socially constructed identity of girls and girlhood was a mix of obedience and independence, innocence and spunk, purity and sexuality, cleverness and naiveté, and a fresh, pretty face.# Popular girls’ fiction of the times provided much-needed reassurance and guidance to its young and impressionable readers. In the years before World War I, the concept of the American teenager was relatively new and evolving. Stricter child labor laws, technological advancements, a reformed education system, and changing popular ideals culminated in a new sub-group of people who existed between childhood and adulthood.# With less time spent in factories and doing household chores, these newly recognized adolescents enthusiastically embraced the growing teenager consumer culture. As girls’ culture and literature scholar Peter Stoneley explains in Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, novels for adolescent girls transitioned from a didactic and “preachy” tool for teaching lessons into a genre focused on entertaining their young audiences as well as teaching them.# The perky and pretty modern girl of the twentieth century quickly became a cultural symbol used within the consumer culture, inducing nostalgia and optimism.
The all-American fictional heroines of these novels were far from realistic when compared to their real-life readers. “There is always a distinction to be made between the actual child and the ideological child, the child as embodiment or projection of adult needs and desires,” explains Stoneley. “One of the main motives ascribed to the production of girls’ fiction was that it could help to create the very girl it was ostensibly about.”# Stoneley’s assertion that popular girls’ novels were written to be used as societal tools for molding American teenagers is supported by numerous examples within Curtis’s Little Maid novels of the early 1900s. Although the two series are separated by over fifty years, the American Girl novels of the 1980s also contain these same underlying motives.
The Little Maid and American Girl novels also function as windows into the past, through which readers practice interpreting history while still being entertained and emotionally connected to the story and its characters. Readers not only take in an adventure-filled story about wholesome heroines, but also consume the author’s intended perspectives about the heroine’s role in Colonial America’s society, as well as the American Revolution. By making history more approachable and personalized for young readers, the novels “[raise] questions about justice, morality, historical perspective, and the accuracy of the information presented in textbooks,” thus embedding educational information into an entertaining story that is meaningful to modern-day readers.# As tools of influence, these books have the ability to teach their young readers about the expectations society places on girls historically, as well as in present-day America.
After falling into obscurity, the Little Maid novels written by Alice Turner Curtis are being reprinted, slowly, by Applewood Press. First published by Penn Publishing in the early 1900s, Curtis’s fictional depictions of life for adolescent girls during the American Revolution were advertised in the New York Times and sold alongside other popular girls’ series novels. In this golden era of children’s literature publishing, books were a vehicle for presenting society’s expectations for the younger generations. The girls’ literature culture was synonymous with the girls’ culture as a whole. Girls swapped novels, and word of mouth served as a better advocate than any sort of advertising organized by publishing companies. Teenage girls were at the center of the booming children’s literature industry, and publishers took notice of their new consumer audience. In a 1938 study of what the children of the mid-thirties were reading, Albert Kilburn Ridout discussed the popularity of adventure-based series novels featuring the modern girl of the twenty-first century. “The girls seem to have taken to them of late,” he wrote. “Those books which were written for girls were full of a saccharine quality which proved nauseous to many a real-girl reader.”# Curtis’s heroines provided readers with heroines that were courageous and independent, but also obedient and docile.
The heroines of the Little Maid novels live up to their moniker. With silky ringlets of deep chestnut or golden hair to set off their bright and sparkling eyes, these angelic little girls easily fit the societal expectations for a pretty teenage girl. They are also rather pliable children. A Little Maid of Old Philadelphia’s Ruthie Pennell is eleven years old, and a “willful and unruly child.”# Over the course of the story, Ruth transitions from a dirty and unkempt child playing the garden, to a poised young lady. Clandestinely, Ruth also plays a pivotal role in the American Revolution by warning the rebel leader Lafayette of the British Army’s General Howe’s approach and plot to capture the Frenchman. “’She came running up the hill calling your name, sir,” explains one of Lafayette’s soldiers, “a little girl with yellow hair and blue eyes.”# Ruth is traced back to her home, where Lafayette arrives to thank the girl for her “loyal service to America,” astonishing the girl’s father, aunt, and friends.# Humble until the end, literally, Ruth’s story ends with a conversation with her friend Winifred. “And now you have done him a great service,” Winifred says in amazement. “All the girls say that you hare a real heroine.” Ruth smiles, and responds, “I guess they don’t know much about heroines.”# Ruth believes that she is a heroine not thanks to her actions in helping the war effort, but simply because Lafayette had kissed her hand. Much like Ruthie, Curtis’s other heroines undergo a transition from a wild little girl to a proper young lady during their adventures and assistance in the American Revolution.
Life lessons and gender roles also take a central role in Curtis’s Little Maid novels as a way to teach readers about girlhood and the world. In A Little Maid of Old New York, the text repeatedly offers readers advice. Annette’s mother, a middle-class proponent of the Revolution, explains to her daughter that “a wrong act surely brings its own punishment,” and that the heroine’s rudeness to a British soldier would come to haunt her.# Annette quickly decides that “in the future she would never, never forget to be polite, no matter what might happen.”# The heroines of Curtis’s other novels also learn lessons in the appropriate behaviors becoming of a lady. Often, the heroine’s best friend and foil is used as a vessel through which these lessons can travel while avoiding an overwhelmingly didactic tone. Annette’s orphaned friend, Nancy, learns about the world through her discussions with Annette. “There are always two kinds [of Americans],” explains Annette. “Good Americans are patriots, and bad Americans are traitors.”# Nancy readily accepts Annette’s simple explanation as fact, and without any dissent in the novels, the reader is expected to adopt this same view.
A little woman and mother in training is the chose societal role for the heroines of Curtis’s books. Not once does a heroine express an interest in going to school to obtain an education. They are mostly preoccupied with learning to do handiwork, playing with their dolls, and showcasing their favorite possessions to their friends and family. “’When the frost comes you shall learn to knit, Anne; and if we be in good fortune you shall do a sampler,’” explains the heroine’s guardian and aunt in A Little Maid of Provincetown. This image of happy domesticity placates Anne, who is “comforted and somewhat consoled by all these pleasant plans for her future happiness.”# The Little Maid series is rife with the heroine’s personal goals and expectations, as well. “To have Amanda speak well of her dear father, to know that Brownie [the cow] was safe in the barn, to possess a white kitten of her own, and, above all, to be knitting herself a pair of scarlet stockings made Anne feel that the world was a very kind and friendly place.”# The other Little Maid novels spend ample time detailing the outfits and accessories of each heroine, as well as her needlepoint projects and household chores. Each of these scenes works to further the societal expectations of a young girl who strives to become an ideal woman.
Whether it is intentional or not, Curtis showcases the underlying complexities of Colonial America in her Little Maid novels. Running parallel to themes of winsome and adventuresome girls and American exceptionalism are various political and social perspectives of this time in American history. In A Little Maid of Old New York, first published in 1921, readers catch glimpses of the hierarchy upheld by slaves and servants when Lottie, the African-American servant of the heroine’s household, refers to a slave from a neighbor’s household as “dat wuthless nigger.”#Curtis experiments with her version of slave diction throughout the book, and the style would have been quickly recognized as a slave-oriented way of speaking by her impressionable 1920s girl readers. Each of Curtis’s novels provide in-depth and varied perspectives of colonial life and the intricacies of Revolutionary America’s society that are subtly discussed at some points, and openly didactic and expository at others.
Curtis’s novels show an intelligent understanding of America in the Revolutionary era, and its myriad of events, issues, and perspectives. The new editions of the Little Maid novels, currently being published by Applewood Books, strive to attract new readers who have been indoctrinated by the American Girl empire of books and toys. It remains to be seen whether or not this attempt at building upon the marketing techniques of American Girl will work. There are stark differences between the two series, and they will not go unnoticed by readers. Although the general expectations of a historical fiction heroine have not changed drastically, the marketing expectations of young consumers and their parents are very different from the teenage consuming culture of the early twentieth century.
Pleasant Rowland’s idea of coupling high-quality dolls with formulaic, historically accurate stories found a happy intersection between education and play. The American Girl heroines exhibited the characteristics of a traditional heroine: independent and courageous, intelligent and virtuous. Rowland set out to create a line of dolls and books that would promote good values and contend against stereotypical and sexualized dolls, like Barbie. “Our product was subtle,” explained Rowland in an interview. “There was a lot of depth that would not be immediately recognizable in a retail environment.”# The six short novels chronicling Felicity Merriman’s adolescence in Colonial Williamsburg, written by Valerie Tripp, contain elements that are found in all of the novels encompassed by the American Girls Collection. Each set of books consists of a high-spirited and courageous young girl whose story includes a special doll, a unique necklace, unusual aspirations, a best friend who serves as the heroine’s timid and ostracized foil, and elderly guardian figure in addition to her parent(s), a pet to care for, and a great challenge to overcome by the end of each six-book saga.
Felicity Merriman is happiness personified. Her curly red hair and freckles set her apart from the ideal golden-haired angel or dark-eyed beauty. Along with her russet locks come the characteristics of a stereotypical redhead. Quick to temper, quick to act, Felicity is stubborn and spirited. She is also loving and loyal to her friends and family, and exemplifies the ideals of the American Revolution. She loves her independence, and strives to be true to herself while still submitting to the expectations of her parents, and society.
The expectations of a young Colonial girl are clearly laid out for readers in the American Girl novels. Nine-year-old Felicity explains that she would like to go to college, “and read Greek and Latin and philosophy and geography, just as the gentlemen do.” Her mother has other ideas. “Girls should be educated,” she explains to her daughter.# Mrs. Merriman does harbor high hopes for her eldest daughter, but they fall within society’s expectations of a respectable gentlewoman and her appropriate gender roles. “Caring for a family is a responsibility and a pleasure. It will be your most important task, and one that you must learn to do well,” she explains. “A notable housewife runs her household smoothly, so that everyone in it is happy and healthy. Her life is private and quiet. She is content doing things for her family.” # Felicity is sent to etiquette school soon after, and it is there that she learns to write prettily, complete a needlepoint sampler, and host a proper tea. These lessons on womanhood serve as her formal education, and Felicity is less than impressed. “I would much rather spend my time out of doors,” she thinks. “I would rather be horseback riding, or playing, or digging in my garden.”# Still, Felicity maintains the ideal optimistic outlook, requisite of an ideal heroine.
Felicity is optimistic and fixated on living her life to the fullest, as well as on the good things sure to come to her in the future. She is capable of making decisions independently from the expectations of society, yet follows her heart more often than her head. She steals, or rather ‘liberates’ the abused pony belonging to mean old Jiggy Nye, the tanner. Later in the story, she befriends this same man, who she finds lying sick and alone in debtors’ prison. The kindness she shows toward Penny the abused horse, and then its former master saves these two lives. In helping so, she also secures them as life-long and trustworthy friends indebted to her for the compassion she bestows upon them.
The focus on material possessions is not a flaw of the American Girl novels, but rather a necessity. In the works of both Tripp and Curtis, which were written nearly a century apart from one another, the inclusion of details regarding fashion, furnishings, and other personal items greatly contribute to the viability and depth of the stories. Although she lives in a world of plenty as a young consumer-in-training, Tripp’s Felicity Merriman is not as fixated upon her possessions as the heroines of Alice Turner Curtis’s Little Maid heroines. However, the six Felicity Merriman novels are an average length of sixty pages, with the text printed in a large font and accompanied by dozens of illustrations. The 1990s reprints of Curtis’s novels exceed 180 pages, and contain far fewer illustrations. Tripp’s shorter formula books leave less room for the inclusion of details.
Unlike the Little Maid novels, Tripp evades the subject of slavery and other more complicated historical perspectives of the American Revolution and Colonial America. The Merriman household possesses one servant, Rose, who cooks and helps Mrs. Merriman with other household chores. This liberates Felicity, leaving her able to attend etiquette lessons and have many small adventures. Mr. Merriman employs Marcus, “the man who helps Mr. Merriman at home and at the store.”# At the end of the series, Marcus, who readers are led to believe is a freed African American man, joins Mr. Merriman in helping to deliver supplies to the Patriot army.# Tripp’s readers see Rose and Marcus through the eyes of inquisitive nine-year-old Felicity, yet the stereotypical curiosity of our ideal heroine never leads to a discussion of slavery and rights.
The plots of many of the Felicity novels are about dealing with the every-day, universal issues of peer pressure and life as an adolescent girl. In Felicity’s Surprise, themes of competition, envy, and manipulation combine with passive aggressive actions and intimidation tactics.# In addition to dealing with bullying, the young heroine also learns how to stay true to herself while being open to the expectations put upon her. “Felicity still loved to run and play out of doors. She was still quite often too lively to be ladylike,” explains the novel’s unidentified narrator. “But at lessons, Felicity tried to keep her voice low and her back straight and her teacup balanced. She remembered to laugh softly and ask polite questions. She began to enjoy being on her best behavior at tea.”# Felicity’s transition from child to young lady is similar to that of the Little Maid heroines in that she begins the series as a little girl focused upon her dolls and playing out-of-doors. By the end of the sixth book, Felicity has blossomed into a pretty and responsible young lady who is capable of maintaining a home (with the guidance of her mother), and is ready to make her debut in Williamsburg society.
“The American Girls Collection” encompasses a line of specialty dolls created to coordinate with their respective series of historical fiction novels for young adolescent girls. The Pleasant Company was founded by Pleasant Rowland in 1984# (purchased by Mattel, Inc., in 1998#), and has experienced many great successes. Rather than align with toy stores, the American Girl Collection (headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin) became a mail-order catalog sensation. At eighteen inches tall and sporting shiny long hair and beautifully detailed clothes and accessories, the American Girl dolls that premiered in the mid-1980s were easily distinguishable from their main competitors (Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbie, etc.). By 1993, the $85 dolls and their accoutrements were the centerpiece of the Pleasant Company’s over $90 million in sales. # In 2008, of Mattel’s four core brands, the American Girls Collection was the only to increase in profits with gross sales exceeding $460 million.# In the past year, miniature American Girl dolls have begun to be stocked in Barnes and Noble stores alongside their respective novels. The increased presence of American Girl products in the public eye will surely lead to even greater successes for Pleasant Company and Mattel, Inc.
The majority of novels written for twentieth and twenty-first century girls contain an ideal heroine and a happy ending. Role model heroines are expected to promote good values, make sound choices, and display a wide range of traditional personality traits. These ideal characters often manage to be independent, yet conforming; forward-thinking, yet old-fashioned – paradoxical and flawless idols which their admiring young readers could not possibly emulate successfully. The Little Maid and American Girl novels each perpetuate these expectations and stereotypes in their own ways.
The heroines of these historical fiction series novels are meant to speak to their readers and suggest an identity for the generic, accepted adolescent girl in America. Alice Turner Curtis dubbed her heroine the Little Maid of Colonial America, alluding to a pleasant time when girls were small and pretty. In some novels, they also gain other nicknames, like Annette’s title of “Miss America” by a British general.# It is understood that the characteristics of these pleasant heroines are the same that are expected of the novels’ readers. The Pleasant Company has concocted a similar overarching identity to be upheld by their young readers. The phrase “American girl” has become a brand name and status symbol for millions of teenage consumers. The lessons and ideals found within Tripp’s six-book series about Felicity Merriman are strikingly similar to those found in Alice Turner Curtis’s novels, even though Tripp began writing about seventy years after the first Little Maid novel was published. Now, in the twenty-first century, the early twentieth century socially constructed identity of the ideal American girl continues to thrive and circulate with each new generation of girls.
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