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Cabbage Patch Kids

By Patrick Mondout

They had pudgy faces, questionable heritage, and were genuinely homely. So how did the Cabbage Patch Kids (CPKs) become one of the biggest fads of the Awesome80s?

In fact, how could any mere cloth doll become a fad during the home computer and video game revolution? Xavier Roberts believed he had the answer. Each of his dolls was unique and you weren't buying one, you were adopting one. Indeed, each doll came with adoption papers including a name and date of birth. This pulled at the heartstrings of females everywhere and they were soon nearly as ubiquitous as a Rubik's cube.1

Fabled Origins

Cabbage Patch Kids invaded our homes in 1983 and some have never left, but the story of how they were born actually takes us back to the Super70s. Xavier Roberts, a 21 year old art student from Georgia who had learned quilting from his mother, came up with the idea while studying the early 19th Century German folk art of "needle molding," which might be better described as "fabric sculpture."

Within a year, Roberts produced and sold the first Little People - as Cabbage Patch Kids were then known - complete with birth certificates. He was working his way through college at the time with a job in a small crafts shop in Helen, Georgia, which also gave him an opportunity to gauge customer interest in his handmade product.

Folks in the South loved them and he was soon selling... I mean, adopting them out to new parents for $40 per. Mr. Roberts got together with five old classmates and formed Original Appalachian Artwork (OAA) to market them to a wider audience. The company went so far as to renovate a sixty-year-old medical facility in Cleveland, Georgia and call it Babyland General Hospital!2

Big toy companies are always looking for the Next Big Thing and soon Coleco would sign a deal with OAA in early 1982 to make a mass produced version of the doll, which they introduced in the spring of 1983. The marketing geniuses at Coleco came up with the name Cabbage Patch Kids, made the dolls smaller with a molded-vinyl head, and proceed to rake in as much as $600M in one year alone (and over a billion when accessories and logoed products were added in)! While they were no longer handmade by Xavier Roberts, each was still unique (or at least their were enough variations in mass production to keep 'em guessing) and the adoption price was lowered to as little as $24 retail and was available at 1500 stores... I mean, adoption centers around the country.3

Not Enough Orphans To Go Around

These Coleco dolls were made in Asia and usually shipped on a boat - which took four to six weeks to arrive on the West Coast - because it just wouldn't be economical for them to fly. But when the company was making 200,000 of the kits a week in late 1983, they did in fact fly them in to try to keep up with demand. (Coleco was too busy, perhaps, to issue them with "frequent flyer miles" certificates.)

The supply verses demand problem got so bad as Christmas '83 approached, that near riots broken out in stores with many injuries over the pudgy-faced adorables. As far as I know, this was the first instance of a fad toy causing the phenomena now known as Christmas Gift Buying Rage. One store owner in West Virginia was quoted as saying, "They knocked over tables, fighting with each other - there were people in midair - it got ugly." Another in Pennsylvania armed himself with a baseball bat and said, "This is my life that's in danger."4

The name "Cabbage Patch" itself most likely comes from a series of bestselling novels featuring the homespun philosophy of "Mrs. Wiggs" - a single mother raising her five kids in the Louisville slums - by Alice Hegan Rice, the first of which was called Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch. The character was so popular that there was a successful theatre production by 1903 and the author actually helped found a bank in Louisville in 1905! Xavier Roberts says that, as a child, he was told that he was born in a cabbage patch. It is likely that his ancestors were familiar with the popular Mrs. Wiggs books.5

As with the Pet Rock fad and most others, there were soon copycats and a backlash. Copycat dolls with similar "potato" faces appeared in arts shows and flea markets and some overseas companies got into the act before being sued. The backlash came when the CPK logo started appearing on everything from stickers to lampshades. As the the dolls got more popular, their dismissal by the non-believers became more vitriolic.

Are You 'Kidding Me?

If you dig deep enough into the history of any fad, you will find stories ranging from the amusing to the outlandish to the bizarre. Here's a sampling of Cabbage Patch-related stories from the era:

  • The Social Security Administration alerted state agencies to be on the lookout for Cabbage Patch Kids who were applying for welfare!6
  • According to Coleco, 20% of the dolls were purchased by boys (fess up below, you sissies!).7
  • At the height of the '83 Christmas season, demand outstripped supply by so much that a postman named Edward Pennington of Kansas City went to London just to get his daughter Leana one.8
  • The New York Times ran an article about a department store Santa named Vincent Berger who regularly explained the economic concept of supply versus demand to disappointed (and probably bewildered) kids.9
  • The owner of at least one department store hired an armored car to deliver the 'Kids and discourage the kind of disturbances seen elsewhere.
  • The demand that Christmas also led Coleco to pull its TV advertising as it was overselling the product!
  • Stores ran lotteries among those on waiting lists for the dolls.
  • A sarcastic radio deejay - most likely recalling the WKRP "turkey" episode - announced during the Christmas '83 hysteria that they would be dropping the dolls from an airplane at a local stadium and to make sure to head down there with a baseball glove and a credit card.10
  • There was another shortage during Christmas '84 that left individual stores with thousands of customers on waiting lists!
  • That shortage actually led some stores to buy back the dolls from customers for $40 and sell them again for $60!
  • The population of Cabbage Patch Kids reached an estimated 75 million by 1989. The United States population did not pass that number until 1900!

Like the later Beanie Babies, the fad had to end and many stores got stuck with a large supply of unwanted orphaned kids.

Immortalized on a Stamp!

As part of the Celebrate the Century series of stamps from the US Postal Service, voting pamphlets were distributed allowing people across the country a chance to decide which 15 icons of the Awesome80s would be chosen to be featured on stamps. Not surprisingly, the voters chose the Cabbage Patch Kids. Here is what was written on the back of the stamp:

"Homely and lovable, Cabbage Patch Kids were the surprising success of the 1983-84 holiday season when they set off a shopping frenzy. In an increasingly electronic era, the low-tech "adoptable" dolls were a welcome change."

The irony of that last sentence is that Coleco - makers of the Adam computer and Pac-Man games - owned the rights to distribute the dolls. The deal came at a good time for the company as the videogame/home computer industry fell off a cliff in late 1983 and Coleco had to start laying off employees early the next year. To give you an idea how important the line became for Coleco, consider the second quarter, 1985 results: Eighty percent of sales were the result of Cabbage Patch Kids and accessories!11

Some of the biggest fads involve toys, since they can really get momentum as the Christmas season nears. But that is usually the end of the run for such a product. The Cabbage Patch Kids not only thrived in Christmas 1983, but they were still red hot a year later. In fact, this fad was so big that it spawned a parody which itself not only became a fad, but a movie!

While it is unlikely they will ever achieve their early-Awesome80s popularity again, they still sell quite well both new and on eBay (see our links below and to the left and right).

Questioning the 'Kids Ancestry

Normally that last sentence would have been the end of the article, but while doing the research for this page I rediscovered a lawsuit I had forgotten all about that changes the "official" version of the story - the one the above article retells. A Martha Nelson Thomas of Louisville sued Roberts in early 1980 claiming that the idea for the dolls was hers. You might think that she was just another parasite out to make a quick buck or to get her 15 minutes of fame, but the thing is... she was telling the truth!

Martha Thomas was selling similar dolls - complete with birth certificates - while Xavier Roberts was still in high school. In fact, he saw the dolls at a 1976 crafts show and later tried to make a deal with her to carry them in the gift shop he worked for. (Court records include a letter Roberts wrote suggesting he would, "carry your type of dolls.")

So what happened? First, Roberts and Thomas were unable to agree upon a price and the deal was forgotten. Roberts made his own dolls - over $500,000 worth in 1978 alone - and by 1979 Thomas took notice. Second, Thomas filed suit in January of 1980 alleging infringement on her design. The defense conceded that Roberts had seen her designs and had produced something similar but the initial claim was rejected in 1983 because she had not filed for a copyright on her dolls.12

Thomas produced her own line of "copycat" CPK dolls (though it is clear now who was copying who) called the Original Doll Baby, whose box emphasized that Thomas had been making them since 1971. This time she copyrighted them! You can find them now on eBay (see our links, above right).

Roberts made a fortune and went on to produce other far less successful products, such as the Furskins and companions to the CPKs called Preemies (younger siblings) and Koosas (pets). As the fad ran its course and sales dwindled with no new fad product to lift earnings, Coleco could no longer hide from creditors and eventually filed for bankruptcy protection. Hasbro ended up with the license, but it is now held by Mattel. As Paul Harvey would say, "And now you know the rest of the story!"

Notes:
1. Another unique part of the marketing plan was that if you registered your doll with Coleco, they'd send the doll a birthday card at the right time. Of course it also meant that this multinational had your address. And you wonder why you now receive so much junk mail?
2. In fact, you can still go to Cleveland, Georgia and pick up a baby at the hospital, with prices ranging into the thousands of dollars, depending upon accessories. It's sort of a Graceland for CPK lovers.
3. New York Times; June 9, 1983; page B3: Macy's ad.
4: New York Times; November 29, 1983, "'Adoptable' Dolls Aren't Having Any Trouble Finding Homes" by David Bird, page A17.
5. The book was also hailed by the International Woman Writers Conclave as one of the 100 best books written by a woman in 1933. It's at least a little ironic that the original idea for the dolls came from a woman in Louisville and the name "Cabbage Patch" came from another woman from Louisville considering neither collected a dime in royalties.
6: Some hospitals, apparently caught up in the CPK excitement, actually issued real birth certificates for some of the dolls. An unscrupulous owner could have applied for benefits. The Wall Street Journal's witty editorial demanded "keep those Cabbage Patch Kids off welfare!"
Wall Street Journal; August 7, 1984, "Cabbage Patch Cheats."
7: In case you're not familiar with me or my sites, I'm neither a homophobe nor is this intended to be mean-spirited.
8: New York Times; December 3, 1983; page 9: "Kansan's Journey to London Nets 5 Cabbage Patch Dolls."
9: "No, I really do," Mr. Burger told the New York Times in a December 23, 1983 article called "As Santa Explains Supply vs. Demand."
10: According to the article, a small number showed up "presumably with gloves and credit cards." New York Times; December 10, 1983; page 23; "Just a Toy, Just a Toy, Just a Toy" by Peter David.
11. Wall Street Journal; August 13, 1985: "Cabbage Patch Creator, Coleco Sign New Accord."
12. New York Times; December 6, 1983; page A22: "Cabbage Patch Kids Spur A Battle Over Parentage" by Fay S. Joyce.

 

 

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FAD FACTS

As part of the Postal Service's 'Celebrate the Century' series, voters chose the Cabbage Patch Kids as one of 15 icons of the Awesome80s!

Courtesy of the USPS


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