Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Mattel Inc.
Sales: $300 million (1998 est.)
SICs: 5961 Catalog & Mail-Order Houses; 2721 Periodicals, Publishing, or Publishing & Printing
Pleasant Company is one of the United States’ premiere manufacturers of children’s dolls. Its American Girls collection embodies girls from different periods in American history, such as Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant pioneer girl of the 1850s, and Josefina, a Mexican-American girl living in northern New Mexico in the 1820s. The high-quality dolls, which retail for close to $100, are accompanied by a wealth of historically accurate accessories. Pleasant Company also sells books about each of its doll characters and publishes American Girl Magazine, with more than 700,000 subscribers. Pleasant Company is one of the top ten publishers of children’s magazines in the United States and is in the top 20 of children’s book publishers. The company also finds itself in the top 20 among direct mail enterprises, as the dolls are sold almost exclusively by mail. The company operates doll-related tours or shows at six living history museums around the country and opened its first retail space, a combination theater-restaurant-store, in Chicago in 1998. Pleasant Company manufactures girls’ clothing as well as doll outfits and sells a line of baby dolls and accessories in addition to its main American Girl line. The company operates out of a warehouse and distribution facility in Middleton, Wisconsin, with additional sites in nearby southeastern Wisconsin. The company was privately held until 1998, when it was bought by Mattel Inc.
Pleasant Company was the brainchild of Pleasant Rowland, an entrepreneur with a background in education and a fervent dream. Rowland was raised on Chicago’s North Shore and educated at Wells College. After graduating from Wells, she taught elementary school for six years during the 1960s. In 1968 Rowland became a television news anchor in San Francisco. While on assignment as a reporter, she met a representative of an educational publishing company, Boston Educational Research. Impressed with her skills and interest in children’s materials, Boston Educational Research hired Rowland away from the television station, and she became director of product development there from 1971 to 1978. At that company she developed several children’s reading textbooks, which were used widely by school systems across the country. Royalties from her textbooks gave Rowland enough money to buy the Children’s Magazine Guide in 1981, a library resource aimed at elementary school children. Rowland tripled the circulation of the publication in the 1980s and then sold it in 1989.
Although she had worked with children’s educational materials for most of her career, the idea for her American Girls doll collection did not gel until Rowland visited the historical site at Williamsburg, Virginia sometime in the early 1980s. Rowland was impressed with the exhibits at Colonial Williamsburg, but dismayed that there were no books in the gift shop that she deemed suitable for children. So Rowland decided to write a children’s guide to Williamsburg. She sold the idea to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and eventually produced an illustrated family guidebook for them. She grew excited about teaching history to children and searched for other ways to reach kids. Her resolve to make historical dolls was strengthened when she examined the mass market dolls that were currently available. The choices for girls between the ages of seven and 11 ranged from glitzy, buxom Barbie to bland, babyish Cabbage Patch dolls, with little in between. Rowland decided to develop something completely different: a finely made, historically accurate doll that would teach children about history and inspire their imaginations.
Rowland eschewed outside consultants and put together her enterprise her own way. She found one nicely made doll in a back room at Marshall Fields in Chicago and, from a tag on its underwear, located its German manufacturer. Intensive research at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology led to prototype designs for three dolls. Kirsten, a Swedish pioneer girl, Samantha, a wealthy Victorian orphan, and Molly, a bespectacled nine-year-old in the waning years of World War II, were the first three products in the American Girl line. Each doll was accompanied by a book, an audiocassette, and a painstakingly detailed collection of optional accessories. Rowland rented a warehouse in Madison, Wisconsin, where she had been living since the early 1980s, for her first manufacturing and distribution center. By Christmas season 1986 the American Girl collection was ready to go. Rowland and a small staff put together a lavish catalog and mailed it to upscale consumers on lists Rowland purchased. She also placed advertisements in a few select magazines such as the New Yorker and Smithsonian.
The dolls were high-priced, but that did not seem to deter discriminating consumers, and the American Girl line found a niche. By 1989 annual sales had grown to $30 million. Staff had grown from an initial three to 140 full-time workers. The company added hundreds to its payroll in its busy Christmas season. To accommodate its growth, the company moved from its Madison headquarters to nearby Middleton, Wisconsin and filled a 150,000-square-foot office and processing space. Pleasant’s mailing list, which had started with 500,000 names, grew to eight million over the first three years.
Managing Growth in the Early 1990s
With the company clearly thriving, Pleasant began to diversify its product line. In 1990 the company brought out a different set of dolls, its New Baby Collection. These baby dolls did not have the historical theme of the American Girls collection, yet they were intended as educational tools as well as playthings. The dolls were meant to help prepare toddlers for the actual arrival of a new baby in the family. The dolls had lifelike faces and could be bought with a barrage of useful accessories such as diaper bags, clothes, baby powder, bibs, and bassinets. A series of novels now accompanied the American Girls collection, a set of six books about each character. Similarly, the New Baby dolls came with a pop-up book and a collection of toddler clothes to match the dolls’ clothes.
As the company grew, it needed more professional staff. Rowland hired an executive away from Land’s End, another successful Wisconsin mail-order firm, and lured a marketing specialist from Miller Brewing. Rowland also hired manufacturing directors who were skilled at dealing with firms in Asia, where most of the accessories were made. Yet Rowland herself kept a firm grip on the creative aspect of the business. She hired authors to produce the novels about the American Girl characters, yet they apparently wrote them in close accordance with Rowland’s ideas. Her vision was central to the corporation, and she was uncompromising regarding quality. The American Girl novels, she explained in an interview with Milwaukee magazine in July 1991, were to celebrate “family, hard work, honesty, courage, reliability and responsibility.” In other words, a strong ethical message accompanied the dolls, and this carried through to every aspect of their production. They were packaged in an eco-friendly, water-soluble packaging, and Rowland herself had been known to take employees into her home for extended hand-sewing sessions when accessories were behind schedule. The doll accessories were exceedingly detailed and always thoroughly researched. For example, each of the dolls had a lunch box and miniature lunch, with different foods exemplifying what would have been typical for the doll’s putative time period and social station. As an accessory to an accessory, one doll’s picnic lunch could be accompanied by six plastic ants.
By 1991, after only five years in business, Pleasant Company’s sales were nearly $50 million. The American Girl line added a new doll, Felicity, a girl living just before the American Revolution. She debuted at Colonial Williamsburg, the site that first inspired Rowland to manufacture historical dolls. Felicity’s unveiling was attended by more than 10,000 people, despite pricey tickets of $30 for children, $50 for adults. Two years later the company launched Addy, its first African-American doll. Addy was a slave who escaped to freedom in Philadelphia in 1864. She had been in development for more than three years, and the company was aided by a panel of seven African-American scholars. Giving Pleasant perhaps its first bout of negative publicity, two of the illustrators for the Addy books resigned in anger before the product was finished, claiming that the company wanted to change their pictures to make the slaves look happier and better-fed. Despite this unpleasantness, Addy debuted to crowds even greater than those for Felicity, drawing 15,000 girls across the country to bookstores and libraries where special events heralded the new doll.
Pleasant’s product was a hit, seemingly secure in the niche it had created. Now managing future growth was the problem. The greatest pitfall of the toy industry is that big hits often become passe after a few years, and successful companies end up bankrupt. Pleasant Company decided to expand by extending its publishing business. In 1992 the company began putting out American Girl magazine. This was geared to girls aged 7 to 12 and featured fiction and nonfiction about girls in different historical periods, as well as feature articles on current topics, and craft ideas and paper dolls. The magazine was not as closely tied to the doll line as the novels about Kirsten and her cohorts and was meant to be a “celebration of girlhood,” according to Rowland. Within two years the magazine had 350,000 subscribers.
Pleasant Company’s mission is to educate and entertain girls with high-quality products and experiences that build self-esteem, and reinforce positive social and moral values.
In 1994 Pleasant Company launched another publishing venture, a grade-school curriculum unit called America at School based on five American Girls books. The curriculum package included books based on the school experiences of the American Girls dolls, a teacher’s guide and activity cards, historical maps, and the option to rent or buy the American Girls dolls and their school-related accessories such as miniature desks and books. The unit was intended to boost language arts and social studies skills for third-to-fifth graders and show that girls had a significant place in history. This was the first time that American Girls products were aimed at boys, who would be naturally part of a class using the curriculum. Pleasant also brought out a new line of activity books for sale in bookstores and museums. This American Girls Pastimes collection featured a cookbook, a craft book, a paper doll book, and theater kit for each of five American Girl characters.
The next year the company brought out two new products. The American Girl of Today collection featured contemporary dolls, and Bitty Baby was a new collection of realistic baby dolls. A set of books also accompanied the American Girl of Today collection, similar to the historical novels but about girls in the United States in the 1990s.
After Ten Years
By its tenth anniversary Pleasant Company was among the top ten children’s magazine publishers in the country, with 660,000 paid subscribers to American Girl. The company sought to bring history to life through its doll characters in a new way that year, beginning museum tours led by the fictional girls. Felicity led a tour of Colonial Williamsburg, and the pioneer girl Kirsten led a tour of Gammelgárden in Scandia, Minnesota.
From the museum tours it was just a short step to envision a retail store/entertainment center that would bring Pleasant’s products to life. The company designed an ambitious space on Chicago’s fashionable downtown Miracle Mile, combining a restaurant, a theater, and a store for dolls, clothes, books, and accessories. When American Girl Place opened in November, 1998, it proved to be as meticulously detailed as the dolls themselves. The fine china in the café matched the wallpaper, and the café chairs held doll-sized booster seats so girls could lunch comfortably with their mute companions. The theater was sized for girls and meant to be unintimidating. Exhibits of the historical dolls with all of their paraphernalia were sealed museumlike behind glass. It was the only place in the country where the entire historical collection was displayed, and the only place the dolls could be bought retail. Boutiques in the three-story building also offered American Girl Gear, the clothing line for girls that matched the dolls’ outfits, and a bookstore for all of the various Pleasant Company publications.
Acquisition in 1998
Founder Pleasant Rowland claimed to have had the idea for American Girl Place for 13 years, that is, since she began the company. But shortly before the lavish retail space opened, she did something no one had foreseen. On June 15, 1998 Rowland announced the sale of her company to Mattel Inc. for $700 million. Mattel, the world’s largest toy company, with revenues of close to $5 billion at the time of the acquisition, was the maker of Barbie, the antithesis of the American Girl line. In part it was Rowland’s horror at Barbie that led her to develop her dolls in the first place. Barbie was a cheap mass market product available in toy stores across the globe, an icon of femininity, whose fantasy accessories had little in common with the detailed and realistic historical frills that accompanied the American Girls dolls. Pleasant Company’s products had been surrounded from the beginning by the halo of education and ethics, especially pronounced in the family values promoted by the American Girl books. Barbie and Mattel shared little of that. Mattel believed that it had a lot to learn from Pleasant Company’s success, however, and wanted to embark on direct marketing and in publishing books about its brand-name toys. So although the fit of Pleasant with Mattel seemed unlikely from the smaller company’s perspective, it made good sense to Mattel. Pleasant Rowland was to become a vice-chairman of Mattel, and the company would remain in Middleton, with no announced changes in its marketing strategy or goals.
Alexander, Suzanne, “Doll Line Is History—and a Pleasant Hit,” Wall Street Journal, August 22, 1991, p. Bl.
Allen, Hayward, “Pleasant Rowland,” Wisconsin Trails, January/February 1990, p. 46.
“The American Girls Put the Past in Pastime,” Publisher’s Weekly, August 8, 1994, p. 35.
Bannon, Lisa, “’Hi, Barbie! I’m Samantha. Can I Boost Your Sales?,’” Wall Street Journal, June 16, 1998, p. Bl.
Conroy, Mary, “Doll Firm Comes Long Way After Starting with 3 Workers,” Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), May 19, 1990.
Ivey, Mike, “Mattel Buys Pleasant Co. for $700 Million,” Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), June 15, 1998, p. 1A.
Moore, Todd, “Unpleasantries at Pleasant Co.,” Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), September 16, 1993, p. 1A.
“Pleasant Dreams,” Milwaukee, July 1991, p. 29.
Weintraub, Joanne, “Dolls Provide a Creative Alternative,” Milwaukee Journal, November 23, 1986, p. 1G.
"Pleasant Company." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/pleasant-company
"Pleasant Company." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved April 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/pleasant-company
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