Tag Archives: Harlem Renaissance

American Girl Doll Claudie Wells’ Collection Details The Rich Black Experience During 1920’s Harlem Renaissance

26 Aug
Claudie’s World

Welcome back Gen Next readers! Life has been rough on this end post-pandemic, and the struggle has been real for me trying to get back to normal. I’m sure that’s the story for everyone right now.

But the one thing all of us can count on is beautiful and compelling stories from American Girl that remind us of days gone past.

Finally, one of the most asked-for and anticipated dolls, from one of the most asked-for eras, has arrived: Meet Claudie Wells!

Personally, I’ve been begging for this era in time. I’ve often wondered why they hadn’t tackled the era sooner. Yet, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Story

For those who haven’t had the proper education on the Harlem Renaissance, it was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s. For the first time, Black talent was being recognized, and Black people were more prosperous than they had been after the Civil War.

As both an African American and a writer, Claudie is someone that I relate well to. She literally reminds me of myself. As she struggles to find her special talent, she’s almost mirroring me now as I struggle to find direction, especially in my career and personal life, post-pandemic.

Claudie Wells is growing up in 1920s Harlem and is in awe of the artists all around her. Her father is a talented baker, her mother is a reporter for a renowned newspaper, and her boardinghouse mates include a jazz singer, cornet player, and painter. Claudie dreams of having a special talent all her own but struggles to find her calling. When an eviction notice threatens her beloved home, Claudie takes a risk to pursue an idea that just might turns things around.

The author is #1 New York Times Best-Selling Author Brit Bennett and the Illustrator is Laura Freeman. Brit Bennett left a beautiful author’s note, resonating with ’90s kids, such as myself, everywhere. Like me, she grew up with the massive array of toys and books and other consumable goods aimed at children in the 1990’s. We had it good. The economy wasn’t too shabby, life was imaginative before the internet really stole our eyes and time away, and businesses were interested in marketing to children of all ages. Children had simpler tastes, too.

I feel that the author is as relatable as Claudie. I felt a wave of nostalgia as she mentioned book series like the Hardy Boys and Dear America, and the mountains of Barbies she played with, something Millennials know all too well. Her story about sharing her American Girl doll Addy and exchanging the books with her sister brings me back to the exact same scenario with me and my twin during our long summer road trips when visiting with relatives. We had six books for the first six characters in the company, and I would always read the books dedicated to the first three characters in the timeline while she would read about the last three. Then, we’d switch!

In the “Story Sneak Peek” video posted in the shop section of Americangirl.com, Bennett shares that she engages with American Girl’s social media, and begged them to let her write a story centered on a 1990’s character. Though, I’ve also desired a 1990’s character, I think we should reserve that spot for an equally long-anticipated Asian Historical lead character (who, unlike Ivy Ling, should not be a side-kick). Bennett was the perfect person to tackle a very important and yet surprisingly underrepresented era in history. She is a fan, and that means she understands what we hard-core fans like to see to a certain degree.

Perhaps what most connects my experience and the author’s is that we aren’t just any old writers, or any old American Girl fans, or around the same age. We are also both Black, African American, and that experience lends a completely new layer to our complex identity. That complex identity seems to be woven into the character Claudie, as she tries to discover herself amidst all the diverse rich Black cultural experiences and multi-talented Black people living in Harlem. With little opportunity, Black people clustered in one area, allowing talent to rise but also leaving black people feeling washed-out in a competitive society.

While the story does focus on the lead heroine searching for her special talents, on her journey she begins to explore her city along with this rich diversity. She takes the reader along as she discovers that everyone has a story. Most of the residents in her vibrant city came from another place. Commonly, most of them were escaping oppression in the South post-Civil War and while Jim Crow laws were in effect. Claudie’s story may seem a little more light-hearted than American Girl’s Addy (who escaped slavery) on the surface, but it doesn’t shy away from ugly truths (like hate crimes, discrimination, or other violent and aggressive actions towards Black people).

The Collection

As with all of the American Girl dolls and their collection, Claudie’s collection creates that immersive and interactive 1920’s Harlem experience. I always try to resist buying more American Girl dolls (due to the price point). But the history lover in me can’t resist the detailed and beautifully designed outfits, the detailed playsets, and the very educational accessories. Having Claudie and her entire world home with me would be like having my own mini 1920’s Harlem Renaissance museum. That is the irresistible pull.

Looking at Claudie, I feel like I’m stepping back in time. I haven’t felt this excited in a long time.

Claudie arrives in a woven plaid dress with a Peter Pan collar, a cardigan sweater, Mary Jane shoes, and knee-high socks. One interesting detail about her blue color palette is that, in the 1920s, Blue was considered a “girl’s color”. Department stores hopped on board to promote gendered color patterns, which began rising in popularity after World War I. Pink didn’t become associated with girlhood until around the 1940’s. It’s a very interesting historical nod to the era.

Claudie’s beautiful thick ringlets remind me of Shirley Temple, though she became popular in the decade afterwards. There is talk around the American Girl fandom that American Girl’s Depression-era character, Kit Kittredge, was supposed to look like that. I think it’s interesting that Claudie dons this glamorous look instead, which kind of symbolically reflects Claudie’s need to feel special in some way. Her face mold is unique among the other Historical characters, but she looks similar to American Girl World By Us’s McKenna. The face mold seemed to be in demand.

Her accessories give a fabulous vintage vibe. I was immediately drawn to the Baby Ruth candy bar (named after the infamous Baseball Star Babe Ruth). As stated in my earlier article on the time period, sports became huge in 1920s America, with many of the biggest baseball stadiums, including Yankee Stadium, opening up, and sports stars appeared on the front cover of cereal boxes and had their own merchandise by this time period. “The pride inspired by the Harlem Renaissance inspired African Americans to excel in the American sporting arena.”

The “cloche hat” was invented by Caroline Reboux in 1908 and became wildly popular starting in 1922.

Claudie also comes with a cute scooter, showing how kids were finding new ways to travel across the city. In fact, it was said that the scooter originated in the 1920s as a playtime item.

Her outfit and accessories are so detailed and unique.

I was very intrigued by her pajama set. Most people might not know this, but pajamas, or pyjamas, as they were known, were actually the height of summer and resort fashion in the 1920’s. They were often worn out in public, considered “multi-purpose” rather than just sleepwear worn within the home. The pyjamas were another sign of the modern woman, as most women didn’t wear any sort of garments that resembled “men’s” trousers. The jumpsuit trouser style was particularly popular.

First appearing almost a century ago at European seaside resorts, beach pajamas were one of the first trousered garments for the Western woman. With their eye-catching designs and atmosphere of sensual rebellion, these pieces have become favorites among collectors today. Recent discussion has been stirred regarding the definition and accepted form of “beach pajamas”. Yet as illustrated by the prevalence of pajamas throughout the ’20s and ’30s, and the seemingly endless occasions they were marketed for, there was much fluidity to pajama dressing. The vast majority of pajamas were multi-purpose garments which were worn everywhere from the boudoir to the beach, to fashionable shops and cafés …

Taking the lead from the bohemian socialites who comprised their clientele, couturiers Mary Nowitzky and Coco Chanel were among the first designers specializing in fashionable and comfortable pajamas for women’s beachwear. Chanel had already been designing sportswear dresses at her shop in Deauville for some time, and Nowitzky, a Russian emigree, opened her Paris house in 1926. Soon other notable designers embraced pajamas as well, and the trend solidified.

“An entirely new type of costume has recently joined the wardrobe of the smart woman” claimed an August 1927 Harper’s Bazaar article, “The Pajama Arrives.”

The silk head wrap is all too familiar to African Americans raised as girls, even to this day. In order to keep our hair neatly in place, at night, our parents wrapped our hair up. Almost every Black girl, woman, and femme can relate to this kind of imagery, and it immediately made Claudie feel like one of the family.

I believe I predicted there would be a dance set on the way. The 1920s was filled with people beginning to be obsessed with the latest dances, such as the Charleston, most of which originated within the American Black Community. The headdress gives this part of her collection that staple 1920’s look that most people looking for the “flapper fashion” influence could appreciate. Of course, Claudie has to learn Jazz dancing. But I think it’s interesting the book ties West African griot into the Jazz dancing experience, showing how Black people fused both identities, African and North American, into one whole, trying to reclaim their heritage after slavery ended.

The Angelo’s Bakery playset is the big-ticket item in her collection and is my favorite. It reflects a rich Black cultural experience in Harlem during this time period. It has banana coconut fritters (which originated in Western Africa), the Guava Orange Cake Roll (which more than likely came from the Caribbean and from Central and South America where the Guava fruit grows), old Southern favorites such as chocolate cake, a sweet potato pie, a strawberry pie, a pineapple upside-down cake, baguettes (which came from Louisiana’s French Creole culture, explored more by American Girl’s Cecile), and braided bread, a Jewish staple.

The German Pretzel is perhaps the most interesting piece of all the food items. There are two historical details this item reflects: World War I and Prohibition.

After it became illegal to offer free lunches, bars placed out bowls of pretzels. Their saltiness made them perfect drinking snacks, but the connection between drinking and pretzels gave pretzels a less than savory reputation. During World War I, pretzels took another hit: many Americans associated them with Germany. But that hit was nothing compared to what happened during prohibition: no beer, no pretzels.

In the end, though, Carroll notes “But the pretzel’s downfall was actually its salvation. When the country went dry in 1920, pretzel manufacturers had to come up with new ways to entice Americans…They curried favor with housewives by advertising the twisted dough as a healthful children’s snack rich in minerals”. And it worked. Pretzel consumption doubled during prohibition, and once the booze was legal again, pretzel sales continued to grow. Soon they were hailed as the only thing to eat with tuna-fish salad, and Americans were also indulging in pretzel soup, lollipops, and pie crusts.

Rye bread became a staple food item after the “sandwich” rose in popularity in the 1920s.

Other unique items are the 1899 $1 Silver Certificate Black Eagle Banknote (dollar bill), which then had an American Eagle, the USA’s national bird, and a black and gold cash box (revealing that not every business owner had the privilege of being able to afford a cash register). The boiled oats, flower, and sugar containers are designed to reflect the packaging style popular of the period.

Aside from everything mentioned, there is even more to explore with this playset, making it worth the price for hard-core American Girl fans and deep history lovers alike.

Finally, American Girl has partnered up once again with Harlem Fashion Row (as they did with World By Us) to help get designers of color on the map. The new designer outfits were created by Samantha Black, producing “a modern take on 1920s glamour”. The outfits are gorgeous and add more variety to Claudie’s collection.


Claudie feels like a tried-and-true American Girl. Like the older American Girls of the 1980s, she doesn’t magically have strong gifts or talents. She’s figuring herself out, feeling more like Samantha, Kirsten, and Molly, than Kit, Julie, and Rebecca. She’s a “normal” girl.

At the same time, she’s lovable and most people can relate to her. She has a quirky charm.

Her collection is rich with detail, really bringing her 1920’s era to life. She has some stereotypical flapper items, but overall she is a more realistic portrayal than what is normally placed out there to paint the Roaring ’20s.

The doll is everything I’d hoped for, and I’m very glad American Girl decided to release her. American Girl is probably the only historical fiction brand to truly tackle this era from the minds of children, making her a true gem.


Claudie Jones’s promotion is seriously lacking. Maybe there just aren’t enough funds in the pool post-pandemic, but it feels like there were more organized events and articles talking about 1980’s Courtney than Claudie. It’s a shame because Claudie has the potential to really teach children history, while Courtney was just a nostalgic cash grab without any thought as to how the 1980’s really impacted history (which wasn’t much history, to be honest). But that’s the times we’re living in.

It’s bad enough Claudie is Black, and we already know that American Girl’s largest fanbase isn’t on the darker side. The Black characters do struggle to sell as well as the White characters. That’s why it’s disappointing that the major news outlets, other than Business Wire and Pix 11, are basically ignoring her. These other outlets have no problem juicing up the Girl of the Year every year.

Also, is it just me, but are American Girl collections and stories getting smaller and shorter?

Since the Beforever relaunch in 2014, and since the release of “abridged” books, the American Girl books lack the substance and detail they once had in the past. American Girl 1980’s Courtney was the start of what felt like a serious stripping away of in-depth story-telling. In my opinion, without the 6-book format (Meet Story, School Story, Holiday Story, Birthday/Spring Story, Summer Story, Winter/Changes Story), the stories feel like they are missing a lot of information regarding how people lived throughout the seasons in those days. I would have liked to see what school was like in the 1920s and how they celebrated the holidays, not just whether Claudie finds her special talent or not. It definitely felt like a “Meet” story, but that only superficially pays homage to the good-old days.

While the number of pages in the book may equal the number of pages the former six-book format would offer, somehow the story feels too narrow, brief, and short. Possibly because it’s too “cohesive”. Traditionally, that hasn’t been American Girl’s style. I would like to hear many different stories told about Harlem during the 1920’s, with a different focus on life in that vibrant city. It’s just not as fulfilling to stay on one topic, in one season in time, without exploring how people change with the seasons. Climate influences culture, and when we ignore climate we lose the culture of the time period.

With the loss of the six-book format comes a loss of a full collection. It would have been nice for her to have been released with school supplies from the time, a desk, and a school outfit. A nice holiday outfit would have been nice, too. As I’ve mentioned on this website before, in the 1920s, the first Christmas tree to light up with electric lights lit up in New York City. It was a missed opportunity not to include that in the books or to reference it in the collection.

The next Claudie book is due to arrive Spring 2023. Hopefully, we all will learn more about this Jazzy character and have more exciting new items added to her collection.

Until then, Ciao, peace!

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