Mary fell for the books. Allison for the dolls. Decades later, American Girl stories are still part of their daily lives.
Mary Mahoney, 34, and Allison Horrocks, 33, hold a Ph.D. in history and are the masterminds behind the American Girls podcast, which explores the historical value and context of American Girl dolls, book by book.
“It’s a one part sort of fan culture,” Kristen Galvin, assistant director for graduate engagement at the UF Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere said, “and then it’s one part of real sort of academic passion.”
In the spirit of sharing their knowledge and experience, Mahoney and Horrocks will lead a workshop on Saturday with 20 UF graduate students interested in using podcasting as a tool to connect with people and share humanistic knowledge, Galvin said.
Although both historians met as undergraduate students at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, it was until they were both pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Connecticut that their friendship kicked off.
A conversation that began about the Olsen twins led them to talk about American Girl and how it ignited their love for history.
“For us, it wasn’t necessarily a really academic monograph,” Mahoney said, “it was really this love for the American Girl dolls and books.”
The 18-inch American Girl dolls were popular in the 1990s. Both historians received their same first doll, Molly McIntire, when they were about 9 years old, and she captivated them immediately.
“I do think our friendship hinged on the fact that we both identify as Mollies,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney got her Molly as a present from her grandmother, after whom she was named. Though she didn’t love playing with dolls, she loved the books that came with it. Molly’s story was set during World War II, which served as a bridge for Mahoney to talk with her grandmother about her own experience during the war.
Molly was spunky, independent, reckless and perhaps a sociopath, but she was someone who was unapologetically herself, Mahoney said.
“When I was nine years old, that was really a trait that resonated with me,” Mahoney said.
Molly also wore glasses and resisted eating vegetables, which are among the traits that still resonate with Horrocks to this day.
“Molly didn’t necessarily mirror me,” Horrocks said. “But Molly was something that I wanted.”
Driven by their curiosity, at graduate school, the two women spent hours investigating unexplored topics, facts and mysteries from the American Girl books, Horrocks said.
A decade later, their curiosity, their expertise as historians and their friendship greatly shaped by the American Girls world have materialized a bi-monthly fun, accessible and intimate podcast, Mahoney said.
“Having that curiosity and wanting to know about people is what drove us to do a podcast,” Horrocks said. “We’re creating a space for people to talk back.”
A community has developed around the podcast. Listeners contact the hosts daily with all sorts of comments, ranging from people agreeing or disagreeing with the hosts’ historical and character analysis to people sharing their own experiences and personal connections with the dolls, Horrocks said.
A listener even customized two dolls to look like Mahoney and Horrocks.
The podcast began in 2019 and gets about 30,000 downloads a month, and the age range of its audience is between 18 and 40. Most listeners are roughly the hosts’ age, meaning in their late 20s or early 30s, Mahoney said.
“It just feels really humbling and surreal,” Mahoney said. “I never imagined that anything I was associated with would have this kind of reach.”
Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, episodes that went out a year ago or so have become relevant among frontline health workers, physicians and nurses, for covering situations regarding migration and loss of friends by diseases, Mahoney said.
Since its beginning, they produced the podcast remotely. The historians have never recorded in the same location. Horrocks does it from her home in Massachusetts, and Mahoney from her home in Connecticut.
For each episode, they record themselves talking for about two hours in their own tracks via Google Hangouts or Zoom, and Mahoney takes on the responsibility of editing, doing her best to make it sound as if they were in the same room and pushing it out to audio hosts.
“The quickest thing that we do is rereading the books,” Horrocks said. “That’s also kind of empowering because it’s like: ‘Dang, I read a book today.’”
They have never spent a dollar on advertising. People who follow them have done so through some kind of external organic means, such as social media, word of mouth or news articles about it, Horrocks said.
“People are tuning in to kind of hear a dynamic between two people,” Horrocks said.
Mahoney said American Girl is a brand that pushes an idea of progress and places women and girls’ stories at the center of historical narratives in a time when not a lot of stories were doing that, yet, in their everyday practice, neither historian feels entirely validated.
“We’re not often taken seriously as women and as historians,” Mahoney said, “even though the work we’re doing is real historical interventions in a public sphere.”