When we think of toys, we think about our childhoods and how much we enjoyed those early years of our lives. And then, inevitably, we think about that one special toy that was a favorite. That one special toy you couldn’t do without. A special blanket, a teddy bear, a truck or even a special doll.
There was one particular toy that, more than any other toy, that became the symbol of toy obsession. The Cabbage Patch Kid.
This was a toy that drove people crazy. It was one of the longest-running doll franchises ever in the United States.
Cabbage Patch Mania in 1983
If you were a kid, parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, sister, brother – anyone – in the 1980s, then you would know about the Cabbage Patch Kids mania that gripped the country in 1983.
That year on Black Friday, people were lining up at stores – not to get great deals but buying a little Cabbage Patch Kid – at full price.
And buyers did everything they could – including wrestle each other – to get their hands on a single little doll. This was the era of the Cabbage Patch doll.
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A Foreshadowing of Things to Come
In the heyday of the Cabbage Patch Kids, people would camp outside stores to try and get their hands on one of these dolls. Others would attack displays and even swarm through parking lots for one of the baby dolls.
The kind of craze you saw for Cabbage Patch Kids was a foreshadowing of how shopping would become decades later for items such as iPhones, gaming consoles or manic Black Friday sales.
It was the sale of these dolls on that Black Friday in 1983 that set the trend for what would later become a norm – the crazy, manic buying during Black Friday sales every year.
How far did this craze go?
A “War of the Worlds” Enactment
If you want to know how far the mania went for Cabbage Patch Kids, then here is a story for you.
Once, a radio ad announced that a B-29 bomber would be air-dropping 2000 Cabbage Patch Kids over the Milwaukee County Stadium. The announcement went on to give details: if you came to the stadium with a baseball glove and waved your credit card in the air so that a passing plane could take a picture of your card, then you stood a chance of getting a Cabbage Patch Kid. It was a joke. Or, at least, it was meant to be.
The next thing you know, there were dozens of people at the Milwaukee stadium, carrying baseball gloves and waving their credit cards frantically in the air. It was eerily like an enactment of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Photo by Carl Bruin/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
CPK Goes to Space
A little Cabbage Patch Kid was even sent into outer space through the Young Astronaut Program. A little CPK called Christopher Xavier was decked out in a space suit, complete with a helmet, and was sent off to outer space in the next space shuttle that was launched.
But what was it that drove people crazy about this soft and cuddly little doll?
It was All About Family
Cabbage Patch Kids were marketed not as toys, but as a family. There was an entire story developed to market these dolls.
According to the story, the creator of the dolls, Xavier Roberts “discovered” Cabbage Patch Kids after he followed a BunnyBee behind a waterfall when he was ten years old. Xavier discovered a magical cabbage patch behind the waterfall. The BunnyBee would sprinkle magic crystals over an open field and then a Cabbage Patch baby was born.
These babies were then taken to “Babyland General Hospital” where they were “adopted” by children and taken to their new homes.
According to the creator of the Cabbage Patch Kids, the idea came to him when he was about 21 as he was creating these dolls. He said that he had created the story himself.
Source: Good Housekeeping
Inspiration from the Folk-Arts
Xavier Roberts claimed that his inspiration to create the Cabbage Patch Kids came when he was an art student. He said he got his creative input from the folk-arts movement, because of which he tried making soft sculptures using quilting and hand-stitching techniques. Roberts said it took some attempts before he was able to give his sculptures a human form.
It was in 1976 that Roberts said that he had created something unique. He called them “Little People.” And so the Cabbage Patch Kids were born.
Then, he created shows around the country so that he could showcase these Little People. Maybe he had an inkling of how wildly popular his creations were going to get.
Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images
Cabbage Patch Babies Were Like Real Babies – Unique
Roberts was a canny marketer. At a time when technology was growing, his dolls not just pulled at the heartstrings, they also reminded people of less complicated times.
Each doll was unique. None of the dolls looked precisely the same, and each doll had its unique name. Additionally, each doll had its character. Something that appealed to many people.
Despite the rose-colored glasses, there was something not quite right about these cute and cuddly dolls. Did they look familiar?
The Creator Finds Success
Roberts copyrighted his Cabbage Patch babies in 1978. And in the subsequent years, the creator of these dolls became a multi-millionaire. He became the darling of the media and homes all over the country – he told the story of how these magical babies were born over and over again. And the world loved him for it.
While Roberts enjoyed his time in the spotlight, clouds were gathering over the horizon.
Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images
Did He Steal the Idea of Cabbage Patch Kids?
The idea of the century that propelled Roberts to stardom turned into a massive scandal. A woman stepped out of the shadows, accusing Xavier Roberts of having stolen her idea. She claimed to be the original creator of these plush baby dolls toys that were now a part of almost every home in America.
Martha Nelson Thomas said she had created these toys, but she had a different name for them – Doll-Babies. Soon, both parties were embroiled in a bitter legal battle to claim ownership of these lovely baby dolls. Sadly, neither party would gain closure from this ugly war.
A Gentle Student Expresses Herself Through Her Art
Martha Nelson Stewart was an art student in Louisville in the early 1970s. Shy and gentle, she expressed herself through her art. And her specialty was soft sculpting, and it was in school that she created her precious Doll-Babies.
She created each one with love and care, paying attention to every detail to create a unique work of art every time. After all, that is what a doll-maker is supposed to do.
Her Doll-Babies Were Her Children
For Martha, these dolls were like her children. No one could buy her dolls; they had to be “adopted.” She wanted to spread happiness more than make a profit.
Many years later, in a VICE documentary made about the Cabbage Patch story, it was reported that she hand-stitched every doll she made. Martha made every unique expression on each doll’s face. It was through her craft that she met her husband.
Doll-Babies Were Made and Given with Love
Martha was now a part of an intimate little community that consisted of her and those who adopted her Doll-Babies. And while her creations were gaining in popularity, she never wanted to mass produce them. She tried to stay out of the rat race and ensure that each of her creations was what she wanted them to be – a labor of love.
A humble and gentle artist, she only wanted to create her dolls and spread the love. She was happy in her little world.
Sadly for her, there was one who lacked her scruples and was going to destroy the integrity of her creations – Xavier Roberts.
Avoiding the Mass Consumerism of America
An idealist, Martha Nelson Thomas used her dolls to communicate with the world. They were not to be like other mass produced toys – nameless, faceless and unknown.
Each of her creations was an individual with a personality. When she sold a Doll-Baby, there was a little note tucked into its clothes with a personal note about the doll. This note gave the doll’s name as well as what it liked to do. She was creating dolls that would develop children’s imaginations and also teach them how to treat others with love and tenderness.
This vision of Martha’s would soon be lost.
Roberts Was Re-Selling Martha’s Dolls
Many sources later stated that Roberts had been intrigued by the entire concept of Martha’s Doll-Babies as soon as he heard about it. So he bought a few of her dolls and re-sold them at a profit at a Georgia gift shop.
Martha soon found out what Roberts was doing, and, according to a close friend of hers, Guy Mendes, took back all her dolls from him. She told Roberts that she was not comfortable with the manner in which he was exploiting her Doll-Babies.
Roberts wasn’t going to listen, though. After all, he had found his pot of gold. He took drastic steps.
Roberts Was Going to Sell Those Dolls – No Matter What
Roberts decided that if he could not partner with Martha Thomas, then he would merely steal her idea and go on without her. He wrote her a letter saying just that. He told Martha that if she wasn’t willing to let him sell her dolls, he would make ones that looked like hers and sell them.
Whether Martha agreed or not, he was going to sell her creations.
Even though Martha was shattered by what Roberts was doing, there was nothing she could do to stop him.
His “Creation” Made Him a Millionaire
Roberts did exactly what he promised. He made almost an identical doll, and he called it a Cabbage Patch Kid. He also stole Martha’s idea of having the dolls adopted.
However, he did not personally make each of the dolls – the way Martha did. He had them mass produced. While some of the dolls were still soft sculpted and hand-stitched in Georgia, the majority of them were made in a factory. They had hard vinyl faces and soft sculpted bodies.
His “creations” went what we would now call “viral.” He made millions from them. However, Martha only found out what he had done much later.
Martha Finds Out About the Cabbage Patch Kids
Martha found out about the new Cabbage Patch Kids by chance. A women had bought one of these dolls in the Georgia area. She connected with Martha and told her that she had seen her dolls being sold at the Atlanta Airport.
The lady showed Martha the Cabbage Patch doll, and that was when she realized how completely Roberts had stolen her concept.
A Genius at Marketing!
There is nothing subtle about a person stealing another person’s idea. Martha only wanted her dolls to be appreciated, but Roberts just wanted to make money.
The problem is that such situations are not black and white. While Roberts may have been underhanded in what he did, the one talent he had in plenty was market savvy. He knew how to market his product, and that is what turned the Cabbage Patch Kids into such a resounding success.
But if he thought that things were all in his court now, he was very much mistaken.
Creating the World of Cabbage Patch
Roberts did not stop at just selling the Cabbage Patch Kids. He created an entire world around them – just like in his stories. He bought an old medical clinic in Cleveland in Georgia. Then he dressed it up as an infant nursery. The Cabbage Patch dolls all “slept” in incubators or cribs and each had a proper birth certificate.
He called the place BabyLand General Hospital. The entire staff of salespeople at the “Hospital” were dressed as doctors and nurses who “cared” for the Cabbage Patch babies. The salespeople were instructed to interact with the dolls like they were real babies. The idea was an instant hit.
Roberts Was More Street Smart
Roberts knew he was sitting on a gold mine and so took steps to protect his interests. First, he copyrighted the Cabbage Patch concept. And then, he put his stamp on every doll that was manufactured.
Martha had always thought of her creations as her children, and she never wanted them “branded,” so she never put her stamp on them. And this is what led to her downfall. She ended up not having any proof that the entire concept was her idea. Soon, she would seek legal counsel.
Enjoy it While It Lasts
While Martha was exploring her legal options, Roberts was enjoying his new found success. Roberts was living the dream – a 30-room mansion, a chauffeured limousine and more than 200 employees doing his bidding.
And in all that time, the Cabbage Patch craze was peaking. These dolls were selling out as soon as they hit the shelves. Children were going crazy. So much so that some of them were hurting themselves to blackmail their parents into buying them the Cabbage Patch Kid.
Martha Nelson Thomas Gets Legal Help
Things were spinning out of control by now. As is the case with any craze, others were trying to piggyback on the success of the Cabbage Patch toys. The Topps Company released the Garbage Pail Kids, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids. And the mania with the dolls was now becoming alarming.
Martha was finally able to get legal help, from a lawyer named Jack Wheat. The fight for the Cabbage Patch Kids was now officially on.
Admission of Guilt
Roberts had admitted to having stolen Martha’s concept – kind of. What he said was that he had been “inspired” by her idea.
Martha was trying to prove that Roberts had stolen her idea – completely, that the Cabbage Patch Kids were copies of her Doll-Babies.
The problem was that Martha didn’t have any document to prove her claims. She hadn’t copyrighted her concept. And neither was she an aggressive person, which meant that she wasn’t going to fight tooth and nail for her creations.
It was because of her reticence that the legal battle dragged on for six years. She finally won the case, but things didn’t change for her.
Martha finally won the case and also won a settlement from the case. But more than anything else, she was just glad that the fighting was over. She had had enough of it all and just wanted to get on with her life and also go back to her art.
Martha never told anyone how much of a settlement she won. All she would say was that she had enough to put her kids through college and she was happy with the outcome.
Little did she know that it was also the end of the Cabbage Patch Kids.
How the Mighty Fall
Martha’s lawsuit against Roberts was only the beginning of his legal troubles. Other issues cropped up and finally, not long after Martha’s case concluded, Roberts sold the Cabbage Patch Kids for just over $30 million. He had to do so since the company that was manufacturing the dolls declared bankruptcy in 1988.
Hasbro bought out the Cabbage Patch rights. However, the toy company’s plan was not to resurrect the doll but to put it to rest. Slowly, the Cabbage Patch mania died away, leaving nothing but fond memories in the minds of the children that had “adopted” them all those years ago.
But a craze like that doesn’t just die out completely. There are still die-hard fans of these dolls, those who collect the Cabbage Patch Kids till today. One of the largest collections of Cabbage Patch dolls can be found in Magic Crystal Valley, just two hours away from Baltimore, Maryland.
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The Obsession Continues 40 Years Later
The Magic Crystal Valley is a store owned by Pat and Joe Prosey. The couple holds 5,000 Cabbage Patch Kids and considers every one of them to be their children. They are so committed to the idea that the Cabbage Patch Kids are real children that they will correct you if you call them “dolls.”
This doesn’t mean that the Proseys are so attached to the dolls that they are not willing to part with them. If a person is interested in adopting a Cabbage Patch Kid, he or she can.
The Adoption Center
The Proseys opened an “adoption center” in 1994 and had been running it since then. The couple collects Cabbage Patch Kids from all over the world. They even have a couple of dolls that are worth more than $1,000. Each of the dolls comes with its own mink coat, real diamond stud earrings, and authentic diamond cufflinks.
The Proseys still stay true to the original concept of the Cabbage Patch Kids (and Doll-Babies). Each doll has a unique identity and personality.
Martha Thomas’ Story
After the court case, Martha went back to her life. She continued to sculpt soft, but she was not as productive as she had been when she started. Over time, she branched out and started making quilts, purses and even some dolls that were copies of her grandchildren.
Her art spread joy in her community, which is what she had wanted all along. That is how she had wanted to be remembered before cancer took her.
A Sad but Loving Funeral
Martha Thomas died in 2013 when she was just 62 years old. She had lost her fight to ovarian cancer. And at her funeral, those who had “adopted” her Doll-Babies paid their respects – and brought their “babies” with them. All the dolls were lined up on a pew before her casket.
Martha was the kind of person how was not just an artist. She believed not only in the value of art but also in the value of the artist. She worked with children and schools to promote creativity, despite the trials and tribulations that she went through in her own life.
And Xavier Roberts?
Xavier Roberts still runs the BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia. And the original Cabbage Patch Kids are still hand-stitched there today.
And no matter what the controversy and scandal may have been, the Cabbage Patch Kids had precisely the effect that Martha had wanted through her Doll-Babies – a toy that brought joy to the lives of children.