What was a quintessential 1980s toy that was arguably one of the hottest of all time but could have been a stolen idea?
The Cabbage Patch Kids are a definitive 1980s toy that came out in 1983. They were a soft sculpted doll that created one of the hottest toy demands of all time. The Cabbage Patch Kid is also not without controversy and may have been stolen from an earlier type of doll.
This is a pretty crazy story.
I definitely remember the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of the 1980s and my sister owning at least one of them. It seemed like a pretty straightforward story until you look a little deeper into it. There’s an alleged stolen idea from a previous doll, you’ve got the original toy craze that caused stampeding, and it may have also created Festivus.
You’ll want to hear about this one, I’ve got the podcast or article it’s your choice!
The Early Cabbage Patch Kids & Matha Nelson Thomas
The story for all this may start in the 1970s with a lady named Martha Nelson Thomas. She was an artist and creator from Kentucky who liked to create and make her own dolls. She wanted to make something that had more of the likeness to an actual baby and wasn’t a hard porcelain doll that seemed more for display than for playing.
She was known as a shy person and her best way of communicating with strangers was through her work. She ended up going to school in Louisville and instead of being like all the painter and sculptors all around her she liked working with soft sculpture. Her interest was on improving on basic doll designs.
This allowed her to come up with “Doll Baby” which had softer features and more baby-like proportions. She would also spend her time shopping for outfits and accessories for them to give each one a unique style. This was basically an expression of herself through the dolls.
She would start selling her dolls at craft shows and fairs and the Doll Babies started to become popular. There was one other thing she did that was unique; she gave them adoption certificates. You might want to remember that for later.
Xavier Roberts Comes On The Scene
During the time Martha was birthing these doll babies to allow them to be “adopted” at trade shows, a guy named Xavier Roberts sauntered through one of them in 1976. He bought up a few of them and then ended up selling, or adopting them out, at his own shops in Georgia. He was also selling them for a pretty steep price compared to Martha and this alarmed and concerned her.
Despite being a shy person, Martha actually confronted Roberts and ended up taking them back. He allegedly had said that if he couldn’t sell her dolls he would sell some just like them.
And he definitely did that.
Xavier Roberts would also say that he studied soft sculpture in college and had an interest in making a softer version of dolls. This is what he would say in future interview so who knows how much of a background he had in all this. Roberts knew he had something unique on his hands with what he had “created” and went to go the mass production route.
He turned to a manufacturing company in Hong Kong to make a cheaper version of the Doll Baby, but one that still retained a similar appearance. So they’re technically not Cabbage Patch Kids yet because he was selling them for his own company, and they weren’t exactly the doll that you’re familiar with.
But what was his side of the story?
The Xavier Roberts Story
According to Roberts, when he was 21 he had become good at quiliting which he had learned from his mom. He created his own fabric scupltures that he called “Little People” which I think is not offensive? His Little People were also not offered “for sale” but instead you would pay an adoption fee and each doll came with its own idivdual adoption certiifcate
It’s really hard to know which side of the story is true. It’s not like two people couldn’t come up with this adoption fee and certificate idea, but it’s just interesting how he had seen her doll and then started selling a VERY similar version in the near future.
The one huge thing is that Roberts brought a whole new name to them; he called Them Cabbage Kids. The name apparently comes from a backstory he made about being ten years old and following a BunnyBee (whatever the hell that is) behind a waterfall and into a magic cabbage patch. In the cabbage patch is where you would find the Cabbage Patch Kids being born and then they could live in BabyLand
One last thing though; Roberts patented the doll in 1978 and would do something unique to each one, he branded his name right onto one of the buttcheeks. This was essentially putting a copyright on the doll for protection but one that looked like it was stamped right onto the doll’s ass.
The Launch Of The Cabbage Patch Kids
Roberts owned a company called Original
For the first two years, the production came from the Far East and I’m not sure if that’s just because he had been making his earlier dolls in Hong Kong for mass production. The timeline is pretty hazy on all this and it’s hard to pin down what was done and at
Here’s the interesting thing; despite where they were being made, the smart idea was to include variation. There were 9 different
I don’t know if you remember Cabbage Patch Kids at all, but I do distinctly remember how unique each one seemed to be. It wasn’t a mass version of one product like a Furby, but one that you could pick based on your individual taste – and I think this is where a lot of the success lies. Kids felt like they were getting something specific and customized to them. It wasn’t like every kid had the same one. Everyone got something unique and ultimately, more special.
It ended up being a brilliant marketing ploy.
The Cabbage Patch Craze Of 1983
Before Black Friday there were the Cabbage Patch Riots. I’m not sure if you remember this or not but this was essentially the first real toy craze. There had been in demand toys before but not one that leads to trampling and broken bones.
Cabbage Patch Kids really hit the market full on for the first time in the fall and winter of 1983 and the demand that Christmas was immediately through the roof. It’s pretty crazy to think about how powerful commercials were
Also, when you’re catering to kids and presenting these cute dolls in a creative and effective way there’s no way they wouldn’t one. Even as a boy I thought they were cool and wanted one as did other kids I know. It wasn’t that they were dolls, it was that they were the hottest toy around.
So now you’ve got a perfect storm of an in-demand toy, low inventory, and Christmas…
Most stores were stocking around 200-500 of the dolls, but stores were getting an average of THOUSANDS of visitors. People were trampling, clawing, biting, and
Some stores had to resort to a handing out “purchase tickets’ to control crowds. They were given to the first several hundred customers but will still leave hundreds empty-handed.
Two DJ’s in Milwaukee even caused havoc by joking that a B-29 bomber was going to drop a load of dolls to people who held up catchers mitts and American Express cards. Dozens of people actually believed their joke and showed up at the county stadium in deathly wind chill weather. This is like an 80s version of War of the Worlds performed by Orson Welles.
In a Dwight Shrute/Princess unicorn move, people would buy up as many of the dolls as they could and resell them for horrific markups in newspaper and magazine ads.
The Origin Of Festivus?
O.K this is my theory so bear with me. I’m hoping your a fan of Seinfeld and are very aware of Festivus. It’s the holiday created by Frank Costanza who had become sick of the religious and commercial aspects that came from Christmas and wanted to create a “Festivus, for the rest of us!”.
So the origin of him feeling this way has to do with the day he went to purchase a DOLL for his son George:
“ Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I reigned blows upon him I realized there had to be another way…”
I realize it’s hard to pinpoint if this was 1983 as this would put the character of George well past college age, but based on the Costanzas that might not matter. There’s the chance Frank would have known about the Cabbage Patch doll craze and thought it was fitting for his son. No matter what stage in life he was in…
But I digress.
The Continued Popularity Of The Cabbage Patch Kids
Coleco really had a great product on their hand. All the dolls were unique and from a business aspect, it was a money-making goldmine as they could sell a crapload of clothes and accessories. The dolls themselves weren’t cheap and sold for around $30 which converted for today is around $75.
1983 and 1984 were huge years for Cabbage Patch kids and by 1985 they had made $600 million. But as all fads do, the novelty began to wear off and by 1986 sales were only around $250 million. Still really good, but it was hard to create the interest they once had. Even scalpers were feeling the pinch having huge inventories of a doll people weren’t interested in as much anymore.
Coleco tried to salvage things by bringing out more accessories and novelty Cabbage Patch Kids like talking dolls and ones that actually played kazoos.
Coleco was having a rough go of it with some other failing toy lines, and at this time Original Appalachian Artworks bought back the rights to Cabbage Patch Kids. Coleco would then end up going bankrupt. Hasbro then stepped in to start selling the dolls and began marketing them to younger age children.
Hasbro never really got back they hype around Cabbage Patch Kids and then Mattel threw their hat in the ring in 1994 getting the rights to the dolls. They made smaller size dolls for awhile until Toys R’ Us took over from Mattel in 2003 and started making super-size Cabbage Patch Kid dolls.
THEN in 2004 ownership was again taken over by a company called Play Along Toys. THEN Play Along Toys was acquired by Jakks Pacific in 2011 and now Wicked Cool Toys is the final owner of Cabbage Patch Kids. They also own rights to Teddy Ruxpin
Phew, those dolls really get around…
Garbage Pail Kids On The Scene
I LOVED Garbage Pail Kids. A blatant roasting of the original dolls, they had some of the best trading cards ever released. I still have some of them in my overall card collection. They were originally just intended as a Topps trading card set but were a HUGE hit. So big that it spawned the Garbage Pail Kids movie that I was NOT allowed to go see… but I’m not bitter.
The movie came out in 1987 and was a massive failure. It has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is considered one of the worst movies of all time. You can’t blame the studio though, they had to crank out something quick – like the Emoji movie… There was also an animated series that was created that was actually postponed due to parental complaint. I don’t remember this in my town, but the cards were banned in a lot of schools and were considered a real distraction to kids.
So either way, Garbage Pail Kids was a big hit but guess who didn’t like it? One Exavier Roberts, and In a very ironic scenario, Roberts would sue Topps for $30 million for copyright infringement. That’s pretty ballsy.
I’ve got a full blog all about the Garbage Pail Kids if you want to learn about their very interesting story!
The Legacy Of Cabbage Patch Kids
This story is quite the journey, and I’m not sure what to make of everything Xavier Roberts said as far as saying he created the Cabbage Patch Kid straight up. I think he definitely jumped on the work that Martha Nelson Thomas had created. Roberts himself ended up saying how her dolls influenced his Cabbage Patch Kids. How much was “influence” and how much of it was a blatant rip off is open for interpretation, but it actually ended up going to court.
Thomas settled out of court in 1985 for an undisclosed amount, but her main thing she stated through the whole ordeal was how upset she was at the corruption of the dolls. She resented how they were mass-marketed commercial products, but I have to say that millions of kids world-wide loved and enjoyed these dolls which was her original goal.
Either way, there may be no more definitive toy of the 1980s and it’s got a story and history as unique as the dolls themselves.
- You can head to Amazon to get your own Cabbage Patch Kid (affiliate link)