Decoder Ring

The Cabbage Patch Kids Riots

Of cabbages and copyright.

Illustration depicting a female with a microphone

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Episode Notes

People buying Cabbage Patch Kids dolls
Carl Bruin/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every episode, host Willa Paskin takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speaks with experts, historians, and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters.

The Cabbage Patch Kids were released in 1983, and in the subsequent holiday season inspired a frenzy in stores and in the media. What was it about these wholesome dolls that inspired such bad adult behavior? On this episode we explore the trippy backstory of the Cabbage Patch Kids, and their even stranger true story.

Created by an elusive figure named Xavier Roberts, with at least a lot of inspiration from a woman named Martha Nelson Thomas, the dolls emerged from a folk art tradition of homemade doll making. They began life as a high end art object but became a mass produced toy and totemic cultural artifact, today referenced as a progenitor of more recent toy crazes: Beanie Babies, Tickle-Me Elmo, or LOL Dolls. How this happened has as much to do with art as it does commerce, from their slightly grotesque faces, to their butt tattoos, to each doll being truly unique. The Cabbage Patch Kids may seem like a throwback to a simpler era of toy design, but back in the 80s they were a herald for the future.

Some of the voices you’ll hear in the episode include Cabbage Patch Kids riot victim Sarah Lindenfeld Hall; Mara Thomas, the daughter of Martha Nelson Thomas; former head of product development at Coleco, Al Kahn; Joshua Paul Dale, professor at Tokyo Gakugei University; and author of The Baby Name Wizard and baby name expert Laura Wattenberg.

Email: decoderring@slate.com

This episode was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch.

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In each episode, host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit; examines its history; and tries to figure out what it means and why it matters.

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