In the 1980’s, Pleasant T. Rowland, a teacher and publisher of educational texts, created Pleasant Company and developed a line of historically themed dolls and their stories which featured difficult topics like child labor, slavery, and war. And she did it in a way that young girls, girls just like me, who were beginning to read chapter books, could easily understand.
The first three dolls were an 1854 Pioneer (Kirsten), a Victorian age orphan (Samantha), and a girl living on the Homefront during WWII (Molly). And then, in 1991, a new doll joined the group. And while all of the historically based American Girl dolls lit a fire of learning and developed wonderful followings, there is one in particular whose storybook world still comes to life on a daily basis in a remarkable way. One who has a not-so-secret society of inspired women—of all ages—who are now working, teaching, and instilling history in the children—of all ages—who visit that world throughout the year.
Her name? Felicity! Just typing the name brings a childlike grin to my face and a bit of a tear to my eye.
We won’t speak of the heartache I felt when I finally got to step into the American Girl store in Chicago at age 27, ready to relive a bit of my childhood and spend a little bit of money on a piece or two that I’d wanted since I was a little girl, only to find, that not only were no items available, but my beloved doll was off the shelves for good. We won’t focus on the bittersweet nostalgia that runs throughout our breakrooms when one of us has spotted a little girl with a Felicity (or other historically-dressed American Girl doll) on a tour, and we wished we could send her to Miss Manderly, who teaches Felicity and Elizabeth etiquette on being a proper young lady in Williamsburg in 1774, and who was part of special Colonial Williamsburg programming at the height of the doll’s popularity.
No, we will focus on the joy. The sheer joy that I see on the faces of my little sister and me in a photograph my mother recently sent. It’s the day I received my Felicity doll (cap askew from squeezing her so hard), and my sister received Kirsten, her face buried under her arm.
The joy that I feel today when I step out my front door, onto Duke of Gloucester Street, in clothes like Felicity’s and realize that I am living my childhood dream. As I stated in a previous post, many little girls grow up wanting to be princesses. And in a way, the ladies I work with on a daily basis are. We are working in our most magical place on earth. For some, that journey started with a doll given to a child, books and stories devoured over and over again. And for some, their journey was already here, and they welcomed Felicity into their world.
I never got to attend one of the specialized Felicity tours through Colonial Williamsburg, but my mother did make me a matching gown, and I got to wear it through the city. It was incredibly magical.
There are several of my colleagues who were lucky enough to attend these tours—and some who actually got to be a part of it! “One of the most iconic things in the books are the tea parties that Felicity attends as she learns from Miss Manderly. They are fun to read about, but trying to stage three of them is a bit frustrating, since you don’t want them to look exactly the same each time. When Valerie Tripp signed my copy of Meet Felicity she wrote “I promise you, No more tea parties!” Of course she was wrong. There have been many tea parties since then and I have learned to love them even more!”—Kristen Spivey, Family Programming, Women’s History
A favorite memory from a colleague actually occurred after she was no longer part of the Felicity Tour, but working in the Millinery. “A young lady clutching her Felicity doll entered the shop and her eyes grew wide. She rushed up to me and said “Oh Miss Manderly , what are you doing here??? ” (I portrayed Miss Manderly and conducted dancing, sewing and tea lessons at Campbell’s Tavern and apparently this young lady had been present at one of my teas). Years of group training kicked in and I immediately responded with a line taken from the script,” Young Miss, as I cautioned you young ladies, if you continued to be so adept at your deportment lessons I would soon need to find other work. Here I am. “She dropped me a courtesy and a huge smile. Belief in my character from the year before had been preserved.”—Pamela Blount, Supervisor, Group Interpretation and the Benjamin Powell House
The men and women who led the Felicity tours, played Miss Manderly, and participated in these events that grew and developed out of a child’s toy, made a lasting impression. The doll, herself, and the other American Girls whose stories echoed across the centuries, stuck with us. To read about a little girl who is separated from her family, forced to swallow worms, and lives in conditions more horrible than we could fathom made the horrors of slavery real. Addy’s story was my first true lesson in the realities of a terrible time that had only been an abstract in history books. Samantha’s example of the kind girl who saw all people as equals regardless of wealth, race, or gender was a stark contrast to the time in which she lived where those things were so predominant. A sense of responsibility, and patriotism was instilled by reading Molly’s story, of how a war that was not in her front yard, but across the ocean, affected her life on a very intimate level. There are many more of these fictional historical heroines of our childhood, each story teaching us something about ourselves—as Americans, little girls, and individuals—but since this is Colonial Williamsburg…
Felicity’s story touches on so many things that we discuss on a daily basis here in Williamsburg, moments and issues that caused me to think beyond my world as a young girl. A sense of kindness towards others and fairness, when it comes to the horse, Penny, and her abusive owner. Dealing with the consequences of our actions when we speak up, speak out, or act out. How the politics and actions of our parents affect our own lives. How everything about the grown up world—politics and war, especially—are far more confusing and far less black and white than they seem to be on the surface. Because our parents fed our hunger for history, reading, playing, touching, and seeing our world through a different time and space, we in turn have all ended up here, doing the same.
When I walk down the street, and see certain neighbors and colleagues from around the Foundation, it is sometimes as though we are part of a secret society, sharing this joyous secret—sometimes not so secretly—that we are living in the dream world of our childhood. As though the world of our storybooks has been kept waiting until we were ready to step into it. And the best part about all of it? It’s real. It isn’t a film set. People live and work, learn and grow on these streets and in these buildings. And while Felicity herself may not have actually existed in Williamsburg in 1774, the larger story that she is placed in did. It is a hard story to read and to tell. A story full of politics and shadows, war and inequalities, struggles and triumphs, very little black and white. A story so important to tell, to try to understand, to learn and grow from. It is ours, it is yours, it is the story not just of an American Girl, but of all of us. How could a doll impact and mean so much? Because the doll opens the door to the larger story, the bigger world. And our culture today is so immersed in experiencing the world through the lens of a phone or tablet or television, that getting to literally step into a storybook, one that is actually real, is an incredible experience. Years ago, on the Felicity tours, young children got to experience tea and etiquette lessons with Miss Manderly and learn about Mr. Merriman’s store.
While that is no longer an official tour, there are current and new programs for children being offered throughout the Historic Area. At the Powell House, they can learn what it was like to be an apprentice, like Ben, or learn proper etiquette—dancing, and running a household—like Felicity and Elizabeth. They can not only see the rooms where a family lived, learned, dined, and slept, but try on clothing, play 18th-century games, sit in the furniture, and help with the chores—to play into learning, as John Locke, a prominent 17th-century Philosopher, theorized was the best way to learn. In 2016, our Junior Interpreter program will be expanding further than previous years, so that children will have the opportunity to learn from other young people not just at the Powell House, but at the Brickyard, Colonial Garden, Geddy Foundry, Great Hopes Plantation domestic areas, the Joiner, Millinery, Silversmith, and Wig shop.
Every day, I hear parents and grandparents speak of how ‘history just isn’t taught in schools like it used to be.’ So how do we teach the next generation our early American history? How do we reach them through the technology that invades our daily lives? By immersing them in something they can touch, relate to, make and have fun doing so—to ‘play oneself into learning.’ And teach them about how and why. So that, even if the dolls and books that started my generation’s fascination with our history are no longer telling these stories in a way that is accessible to children—we still are. We are the teachers who give no tests. We are the scholars who challenge your ideas of our not-so-black-and-white history. We are the ones working each day to excite, inspire, and ignite a flame of passion for our Nation’s history—and future—into the students of all ages who step foot onto our historic streets. We are spunky, playful, grave, and passionate. We are the Felicity Generation.
In this photo:
Aislinn Lewis, Apprentice Blacksmith
Allison Heinbaugh, Rockefeller Library
Annelise Tilton, Junior Interpreter
Ashley Starkins, Historic Sites Interpreter
Aubry Moog, Traveling Orientation Interpreter
Audrey Biser, Historic Sites Interpreter
Audrey DeAngelis, Historic Sites Interpreter
Emily Doherty, Historic Sites Interpreter
Emma Cross, Historic Trades & Evening Programs
Gabriella Tilton, Christiana Campbell’s Tavern
Jenny Lynn, Apprentice Tinsmith
Katharine Pittman, Nation Builder
Katherine Morris Ainslie, HA Mom & her daughter Alexandra, Junior Interpreter
KJ Neun, Evening Programs
Lacey Grey Hunter, St. George Tucker/Development
Lisa Heuvel, Educational Outreach & her granddaughter, Emma
Lisa Petrovich, Historic Sites Interpreter
Melissa Mead, Accessories Craftsperson, CDC
Menzies Overton, Groups—led 322 Felicity Tours!
Nicole Boileau, Orientation Interpreter
Rachel West, Media and Engagement Manager
Ramona Vogel-Hill, Cooper
Samantha McCarty, Evening Programs
Whitney Thornberry, Historic Sites Interpreter
And so many more! Tune in next week for a few photo surprises featuring even more of the Felicity Generation!
GUEST BLOGGER: Whitney Thornberry
Whitney is a Sites Interpreter who has been with the Foundation full time since March of 2015. She and her Fiance, Bryan, live in the Historic Area with their rescued pup Derby (a sweet girl of 3 who thinks the horses are just big dogs to play with) and they are looking forward to their impending nuptials in April! Whitney loves hosting dinner parties, sewing, reading, distressing furniture, science fiction, historical dramas, old movies and anything from the Williamsburg Winery. Her mother used to say she was born in the wrong century—and now she gets the best of both!