My Barbie doll had a townhouse, a camper, a private jet and a wardrobe that would make Carrie Bradshaw envious. Barbie lived very much in the present (circa 1973) and didn’t teach me a thing about her past or mine. If I’d grown up a decade or so later, I’m sure I would have been badgering my parents for an American Girl doll. With one of those, I would have had a doll (who looked much less like a Playboy bunny) to fetishize as well as a stealth U.S. history lesson. In the introduction to her book, Playing with History: American Identities and Children’s Consumer Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2021), Molly Rosner explains how her American Girl doll was indeed instrumental in teaching her about American history, but more to the point, it taught her how to be an American consumer – as my Barbie clearly did for me. (Thanks, Mattel!)
Molly’s book is a series of case studies from five eras of the 20th century. She’s chosen unique yet iconic artifacts or projects – the annual Toy Fair, The Clark Doll Study, the Orange and Landmark Books, Freedomland, USA, and the American Girl doll – to illustrate how commercial industries have, on the whole, presented white, male, heroic, exceptionalistic views of U.S. history and American identity. As she writes, “Most representations of history for children continue to tell a story of America’s essential goodness and its steady march of progress rather than a story that acknowledges oppression and notes the fluctuations between progress and regression.” Playing with History is packed with fascinating supporting material, including book publishing history, the evolution of juvenile criminal justice theories, and the critical impact of dolls on a seminal U.S. Supreme Court case. (As she writes, “American history was forever changed by dolls.”) In our conversation, Molly talks about how her research all started with the idea of nostalgia and how becoming a parent has affected her thinking about cultural artifacts and media.
Molly is Director of Education Programs at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives (a NYC history archive) at LaGuardia Community College. She was a guest on Episode 59 in May 2021, when she and LaGuardia student Summer Walker talked with Bronx Community College archivist Cynthia Tobar about their COVID documenting project.