The Cabbage Patch Kids Riots

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: When Sarah Lindenwold Hall was nine years old, she really wanted a Cabbage Patch kid, I wasn’t even a big dog person at the time, just seemed like the right thing to have.

S3: I promised to be a good parent. Cabbage Patch kid. The Cabbage Patch Kid doll is different and you can pretend to adopt them.

S2: It was 1984 Cabbage Patch Kids. The soft bodied, plastic headed dolls with eyes that are just a little bit too close together, had come onto the market the previous year and become an unruly sensation in stores and in the media.

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S4: When the doors opened at this Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, store, the pushing and shoving began. One woman was knocked to the floor and suffered a broken leg. This scene has been repeated in hundreds of stores across the country that advertise the Cabbage Patch kids.

S2: Monday, Sarah’s mom heard that the KB toy store in their local mall was getting a shipment in.

S5: I remember a big crowd of people. I believe that we were there for quite a long time in my memory. It is from 9:00 to 5:00.

S2: The line snaked through the aisles past the other toys leading to a back storage room. Sarah was close enough to see inside of it.

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S5: I remember almost like a pyramid of Cabbage Patch Kid boxes. You know, it just seemed like a lot of really exciting time when the store finally let the customers go pick out a doll.

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S2: Sarah made a beeline for one in particular.

S5: And I see the doll that I once, which was blonde because I was blonde. She had two pigtails and she was perfect. And I picked it out of the pile and I was holding it walking back when my mom and then this lady came and just ripped it out of my arms.

S2: Sarah and her mother were both too shocked to make a scene. They went back to the pile hoping a doll would be left. But there were only Cassus, the pet version of a Cabbage Patch kid. If you can imagine what a character in the musical Cats might look like as a Cabbage Patch kid. That’s a Coosa.

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S5: I don’t remember crying. I remember being sad. And I and I remember really trying to get excited about who I’m looking at right now because I just felt like he does need to be here like the first time you’d seen the grown up.

S6: He was like, really badly.

S5: Yeah. I don’t know. As a kid I ever saw a grown up again like that. Did you think about it for a long time? I mean, I if you ask my older daughter, she’ll tell you that I used to tell her the story all the time. I mean, it’s a good story for a party.

S6: It’s a great cocktail party story. I can hear that. But I could imagine you would tell it at that party is funny and it’s not. No, no. I mean, it’s not even really funny now.

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S5: It’s just like it’s like funny now. Ha now. But it was not back then. It was bewildering.

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S7: This is Decoder Ring, a show about cracking cultural mysteries. I’m Willa Paskin. The Cabbage Patch kids are a dead simple baby doll that don’t do anything of particular note. They don’t talk, they don’t stand. You can’t even really bend their pudgy little arms. And yet, beginning in the Christmas season of 1983, they inspired a pandemonium bordering on rioting. In a two year period, Americans would buy 20 million of them, worth one point two billion dollars, and the dolls would become known as a quintessential American toy craze, a well chronicled moment when we lost our minds over something we should not have in this episode. We’re going to try and figure out why, why grown Americans were fighting in the aisles over such a homely looking baby doll. So today, undercoating, why did the Cabbage Patch kids hit it so big?

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S8: I want to begin at the beginning with where the Cabbage Patch kids come from, you know, a Cabbage Patch and a Cabbage Patch garden all in a row magic have just live and grow with bunny big crystals and love and joy. They turn into a Cabbage Patch Girl and boy, Cabbage Patch Kids.

S7: That’s the first track from Cabbage Patch Dreams, a record released in 1984 at the height of the craze. As the story goes, bees which are flying bunnies, not bees, sprinkle magic crystals on the mother cabbages who then give birth to babies, not cabbage, is going into labor right now. If you watch carefully, please see, she’s already at three and a half dozen four leaves apart. This kind of trippy, singular back story would never in a million years come out of a focus group or market research.

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S2: And just one of the details that are like this, including the dolls, ornate names, their funny faces and that tattoo they have on their left but cheek in order to figure out why the dolls were so successful. I’m going to take each of these specific weirdnesses and turn and try to make sense of them, starting with the one on the doll’s backside. Children’s toys don’t often have an adult man signature printed prominently on their rear end, but the Cabbage Patch kids do the name. Xavier Roberts, the creator of the Cabbage Patch Kids, is right there, tattooed onto every single doll in dramatic cursive. And to explain why, I have to get into the Cabbage Patch Kids real origin story.

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S9: Xavier Roberts was born in 1955 and grew up in Cleveland, Georgia, a rural town about an hour and a half north of Atlanta in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His father died when he was young and his mother made ends meet working at a factory and selling handmade quilts. He grew up idolizing Walt Disney and was both creatively and commercially minded from a very young age in the mid 1970s when he was just 20. He’d taken art classes at the local community college and was running a gift shop in a state park at a craft show. He met a woman named Martha Nelson Thomas Nelson Thomas, who had been a student at the Louisville School of Art, was an artist making Hansen one of a kind squishy dolls using a technique called soft sculpture. She called her creations doll babies, and she insisted they were more than dolls.

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S10: I don’t know how much my mom really believed that the dolls were actual people, but she did an interview one time and it was fairly convincing that she thought they were alive.

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S9: Martha Nelson Thomas died in 2013, but that’s her daughter, Mara.

S10: My mom didn’t really want to express herself outwardly with words, and those dogs were the way she had of making her mark on the world.

S2: There’s a great black and white picture of Nelson Thomas sitting surrounded by about a dozen of her doll babies. They’re all different. Some have yarn hair. Some are bald, like infants. One has a beard. One is black. They’re dressed in what looked like real baby clothes, a nightgown, a knit sweater in R2 D2 T-shirt. They all have soft, stubby proportions, painted eyes and noses and mouths made using a needle and thread instead of add ons like a button looking at them. I thought two things. One was that they look like folk art, something you can imagine in a museum where they have appeared as part of a long vernacular, economical tradition of homemade dolls. But my other thought was those looks so much like Cabbage Patch kids.

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S8: And that’s because of Xavier Roberts, a young boy named Xavier who lost his way around the kids one day as he left in.

S7: After meeting, Thomas, Roberts bought a few of her dolls to sell at the gift shop he was running. But Martha pulled out of their arrangement very quickly. She thought he was selling them for too much money. Soon after, Roberts developed a soft sculpture, dolls of his own ones that he called little people.

S2: Little people look a lot like doll babies. So much so that in 1978, Martha Nelson went to Legal Aid and sued Roberts for copyright infringement.

S11: We always knew that my mom created dolls. And then one day, Xabier Roberts started to create dolls that looked exactly like her.

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S2: Roberts own legal team admitted that Thomas’s work had influenced the design of the little people. But the vagaries of copyright law meant that she lost. The case should eventually settle another one in 1984. But it wasn’t for decades that she became a widely known part of the Cabbage Patch Kids origin story.

S11: And my mom didn’t like it when people said, Oh, you invented the Cabbage Patch doll, which she did, and she invented something separate.

S2: In the 1980s when the Cabbage Patch kids became a sensation, a lot was made of Robert’s own artistic background. The press talked about how he developed the dolls using quilting techniques he’d learned from his mother. But Robert’s innovations weren’t really with the look of the doll there. With the framework for it, he took the seeds of Martha Nelson Thomas’s idea to treat the doll like real babies in need of homes and turned it into a totally bizarre but extremely effective concept for selling expensive.

S8: One of a kind art objects in baby land. Come see it for yourself. In Babyland.

S2: The concept had two parts. One was the whole magical cutesy story of the mother Cabbages, which is a riff on an old Southern wives tale about how babies come from cabbage patches. It was an upbeat solution to a potentially downar problem in the very premise of the dolls, which is why they all need parents in the first place. You can imagine a depressing answer to this. So instead, Roberts imagined cabbages. The second part of the concept was not magical at all, though it was medical. In 1978, Robert started a company called Original Appalachian Artworks that took over an old medical clinic in Cleveland at Georgia Babyland General, a set up like a real maternity hospital with all of its employees dressed as doctors and nurses.

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S12: That’s how popular NBC documentary show called Real People, which filmed a segment at Babyland General Hospital in 1980. You can hear how wacky the host found the whole thing.

S13: They call it Babyland General, and they sell them on the most unusual way because they try to convince people the dolls are real. And the weird thing is that people go along with it and it’s just the newest addition to your family.

S14: This is our newest one. What is her name is Joy. Joy.

S2: Needless to say, Joey is not a real baby. He’s a large ball doll wearing only a diaper. We would now describe as looking like a Cabbage Patch kid when the camera goes inside Babyland, there are all these exam rooms with Cabbage Patch kids in preemie incubators and the rolling mini beds hospitals used for infants.

S14: And Dr. Xavier just delivered our first set of quintuplets. They’ll have to be adapted together. Yes. How much will that cost? Well, taking into consideration the tremendous medical costs that they have caused us, we feel that five thousand dollars in adoption fees, we don’t sell any babies. Five G’s for the babies.

S7: Babyland justified these prices by positioning the dolls not as toys, but as art.

S15: I never really considered myself a doll. I consider myself a sculptor. And when I sat down to do this, I really considered of making art.

S2: I think Xavier Roberts didn’t respond to interview requests, but that’s him in an interview from the 1980s that was included in Vises short documentary about the history of the Cabbage Patch Kids, which further explores Martha Nelson Thomas’s story. What I want to point out here is that Babyland General wasn’t set up to be a high falutin toy store catering to kids, but an experiential, gimmicky destination gallery and craft shop for adults at 125 to a thousand dollars, which would be about 400 to 3100 dollars. In today’s money, the dollars sure weren’t priced like toys. The adoption papers they came with doubled as certificates of authenticity, proof of purchase of an original artwork. And that authenticity was indicated in another way as well. They were signed. This is why the dolls have tattoos. Robert started scrolling his first name in Sharpie on the back side of his handmade, expensive, one of a kind art dolls. And this detail persisted even after the dolls became more affordable, mass produced commodities for children on whom a signature was out of place. It’s a holdover from when the dolls were aspiring to be a different kind of status object than the one they would become. In the early 1980s, Babyland General was still very much a regional success, but it had sold 100000 little people, was making over a million dollars a year and was starting to get more widespread attention. One day, Alkon, the head of product development at a toy company called Kalikow, read a small article about it in the paper and thought there might be an opportunity there.

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S16: I went to this Babyland General Hospital. In the middle of the floor was a cabbage and the baby’s heads were in the cabbage. And I said, you know, what’s that about? And they said, Well, we believe in Georgia that babies come from cabbages. So right away I said, well, it’s got to be called Cabbage Patch Kids. This thing is.

S7: Kalikow had been founded in 1932 as a leather company, but in the 1950s, after it started selling Davy Crockett moccasins, it had pivoted to toys. You had a lot of early success with kiddie pools, but starting in the 1970s, it largely made video games and electronics. In the early 1980s, the company was really focused on the atom, a heralded home computer that would totally flop when it came out. Also in 1983, in fact, prior to the Cabbage Patch kids, the company had never made a doll in his entire history. And Alkon thought that it should. Sokolenko licensed the little people, which it renamed the Cabbage Patch kids from Xavier Roberts, and then immediately set out to make sure it hadn’t made a big mistake.

S16: We did a lot of focus groups because we were concerned about what people would think about this. Some people thought they were not attractive, right.

S2: So this brings us to the next weird detail about the Cabbage Patch kids, their funny little faces, which have always been a sticking point, as you can hear in this local news story from 1983.

S4: I don’t like I don’t like their faces, but I want one.

S2: There’s a straightforward reason that people react to the doll’s faces the way that they do. They violate the cute schema.

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S1: The first scientists to study cuteness to try to figure out what set of characteristics make people respond with the cuteness feeling was Conrad Lauryn’s.

S2: Paul Dale is a professor at Tokyo Gallowgate University who founded the Discipline of Cuteness Studies.

S1: So in 1943, he came up with what he called his baby schema of characteristics that trigger a cuteness response in people. And they’re all characteristics of either human babies or different animals. And those included large head relative to body size, predominance of the brain capsule, sort of large forehead, large eyes that are low on the forehead, round bulging cheeks, short and thick extremities, soft body and wobbly movements.

S2: Cabbage Patch kids have some of these qualities and others not at all.

S1: Their eyes are quite small and very close together and kind of pretty high up on their head. Those are things that are not part of the baby schema. It’s one of the things that tips them into the slightly grotesque.

S2: The operative word for Josh isn’t grotesque, though. It’s slightly he thinks the Cabbage Patch kids flout the rules of cuteness, but in a really effective way.

S1: They go just far enough so that some people think that’s grotesques, but other people think, oh, how cute. And I think that the fad for Cabbage Patch kids was in some part propelled by the fact that it did cause this dual reaction.

S2: Firstly, this dual reaction was attention grabbing and made the doll something to talk about around the water cooler and on TV news and decades later on podcast’s. Secondly, it put them right on trend. In the early 1980s, the American public seems to have found variations on gross cuteness really appealing. Think also of E.T., the gremlins, the Ghostbusters, Stay Puft, Marshmallow Man, and of course, the garbage pail kids, the trading cards that made explicit the Cabbage Patch kids grotesquerie. And thirdly, it primed people to feel protective of them.

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S1: But for the people who already thought them cute, this was a I think this was part of the draw, something that needed them. The slight amount of grotesqueness could feed into that and make them seem even more vulnerable and in need of care and protection.

S2: The Cabbage Patch kids are like the scraggly Christmas tree or the three legged dog. The thing you like more because you imagine it needs you to love it in all its imperfections. Another way to say this is that the Cabbage Patch kids weird faces were integral to their popularity. They needed them. They set them apart. But this is only clear in hindsight. At the time, Caleca was worried they might be about to start mass producing a really fugly baby doll. So they did a disaster check a focus group where you don’t ask if people like a toy, you just ask if they hate it. And it seemed like people were tentatively open to the Cabbage Patch. Kids look so Calico went ahead and copied the faces that looked the way they did because of the limitations of a needle and thread, because of the way Martha Nelson Thomas had stitched her doll babies and Xavier Roberts had stitched his little people and then recreated them in much more affordable plastic. Calico made the dolls a little cuter, a little more standard, but mostly the faces, like the names on the tush, are a holdover and not at all what you’d get if you were creating something from scratch from mass production. The dolls are released in June of 1983, accompanied by a big TV advertising push.

S17: When you open your arms to a Cabbage Patch kid, your heart opens wide. And that’s the.

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S12: And these ads were not targeted at kids. They were aimed at adults. Alkon was the head of product development at Kalikow at the time.

S16: Again, when I was hoping for as adults would see this and then they would buy it for their kids because the kids wouldn’t give a shit about this. It didn’t that didn’t do anything, you know, didn’t didn’t walk the walk, you know, to sit there. So we ran the commercials in more mostly adult time, which was unusual for another reason that was in.

S2: So what’s the insight here? It wasn’t just that kids might not care about the Cabbage Patch kids, it’s that parents might care a lot. The Cabbage Patch kids seem like they’re teaching little girls in particular about nurturing and parenting, and they make no noise, require no assembly and have none of the barely subterranean sexuality of a Barbie doll. There is nothing sophisticated or edgy or precocious about them. They seem and look like a throwback to simpler times to Raggedy Ann and her Yarran hair. And they did even in the 1980s. As a parent, you didn’t have to grit your teeth and buy one. They seemed safe and you can see that in their homely little faces. There’s only makes what happens next even more ironic, this incredibly wholesome toy, this toy that looks like it could not harm a fly, this toy that seems like it’s imparting all these lessons about square domesticity. It goes on to inspire abhorrent adult behavior. It looks safe, but it’s not. So the Cabbage Patch kids were released in the summer of 1983, and by the holiday season, people were desperate for the dolls and there were not nearly enough of them. The resulting frenzy turned into a huge news story.

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S18: You did not get a Cabbage Patch doll this morning? No, I did not see. How badly do you want one? Very, very badly.

S2: That’s a local news story that aired on a New York based ABC affiliate in December of 1983. And there were many more like it. The Dolls made the cover of Newsweek. A human interest story ran all over the country about a dad from Kansas City who flew all the way to London to get a cabbage patch for his five year old. Another story making the rounds is about radio hosts in Milwaukee who successfully pranked dozens of residents into believing a B 29 bomber was going to drop a Cabbage Patch kids into the city’s baseball stadium. And all they needed to do to get one was to arrive with a credit card and their baseball met.

S16: Everybody’s calling up and they’re screaming at you. We need more dolls, you know, what are you doing? You know, we’re basically saying we don’t have them. They’re going to bullshit. You got us.

S2: You know, there was speculation at the time the Kalikow was intentionally suppressing the supply to create a frenzied demand. But it would have been impossible to predict the appetite for these dolls. And it seems more likely they had a hard time ramping up manufacturing so fast. Even so, Kalikow was shipping about 200000 dolls a week and would sell about 2.5 million dollars that year. Still wasn’t enough. Demand was so high that a very out in the open black market popped up. Stores were offering to pay more than market price to customers who had extra dolls, which they would then turn around and sell for a small profit, as was also covered in that local ABC News story.

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S18: You just spent fifty dollars for a doll that cost twenty dollars. Why? Because by time I go looking in the stores, it’ll cost me thirty dollars in gas and aggravation.

S12: Inevitably, all the coverage of the dolls and the impossibility of getting them only made people want them more people can’t find them.

S16: Their veracity for it gets larger, you know, especially children. Peer pressure is unbelievable. So a child who wanted the Cabbage Patch kid who couldn’t find it became a hysterical salesperson.

S12: You know, for this, you know, I was like I was mentioning this cozy cutesy doll had become the biggest IT toy ever, more coveted than hula hoops, Davy Crockett, hats, pet rocks and even Star Wars figurines. And that struck people as extremely bizarre from the start. They were doing what I’m doing right now asking why? Why is this doll inspiring this insanity? And that brings me to one more singular thing about the Cabbage Patch kids, a detail that doesn’t seem so odd anymore, but that was really strange at the time. Each doll is different.

S2: So I played with Cabbage Patch kids a bunch as a child, but I had no idea until working on this piece that each one was unique. I just assume there were a handful of different kinds. But no, by using a number of different and variable traits, hair color, hair length, eye color, skin color, freckles, dimples, mouth shapes and so on, No two are alike. This presented a huge technical challenge for Kalikow. The doll may have been greeted as low tech, but that wasn’t really true. It’s just that all the new technology and technique that had gone into making it had happened in factories in China on the back end and weren’t obvious. In the finished product. You can get a sense of how newfangled the dolls were from how one of the Toys R US buyers reacted to Alarcon’s pitch.

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S16: So you’re telling me you want people to go through my shelves to pick out the doll. They want to rummage through my shelves and, you know, pick out which one you want. You’re crazy. You are crazy. You know, that was the term. You are crazy.

S2: It’s hard to cast my mind back to a time when individualisation would have seemed crazy, given that now you can literally get anything in the world personalized. And it seems self-evident that people like that. But it was a huge a new selling point for the Cabbage Patch kids.

S6: By the 1980s, toys were a cookie cutter process. You go to the giant Toys R US store and there would just be rows and rows of individual of identical boxes. And along comes this one toy, which was a huge corporate product they sold millions of. But that one toy says everyone is unique. It almost brought back a little bit of an artisanal feeling to what was a commodity.

S2: That’s Laura Wattenberg. She’s a baby name expert and the author of the baby name Wizard Books. I called her to talk about the Cabbage Patch kids names, which are another odd thing about them. Each doll comes with two unique names, something that started with Xavier Roberts. The first, a thousand little people were named out of a 1937 Southern baby name book. But with millions of Cabbage Patch kids out there and counting the names got pretty weird. Some examples include Delilah, Loreena, Farakka, Scarlet and Gilchrist.

S6: Patty, I think the fact that the names were not cutesy Dolly names fit with that odd position. The Cabbage Patch dolls occupied just as being found under a cabbage leaf is just as a little bit odd and wearing run up clothes and an infant is a little bit odd. Pairing that with a name like Helen, Gertrude really puts that doll apart.

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S2: So I called Laura to talk Cabbage Patch names specifically, but she was really smart about them in general and why they’re oddities. The tattoos, the faces, the names made them so desirable.

S6: Every kid has the conflicting impulses of desperately wanting to fit in and desperately wanting to feel unique. I think the Cabbage Patch dolls played to both sides of that. You had the same kind of doll as your friends, but yours was special only to you.

S12: This duality helped drive sales even after the holiday season. Violence abated in 1984 and 85 each. Calico moved 600 million dollars worth of dolls and introduced a whole new product lines like premies and twins. And those pets called Couzens. Xavier Roberts built a 30 room mansion and bought a number of Picasso’s. The Cabbage Patch kids are one of the most successful toys ever. By 1986, they had started to plateau. Alkon left Gallico and would go on to incredible success licensing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Pokémon, which he actually named by 1988. Kalikow, which had overextended itself on other properties, declared bankruptcy. These days, the dolls are primarily thought of as a nostalgic item, shorthand for a wild toy that the 80s version of Tickle Me Elmo or Beanie Babies, even though you can still buy them online or at a toy store, their hair isn’t yarn anymore, but they do generate about 50 million dollars a year in revenue. You can also still buy a hand stitch, one for hundreds of dollars at Babyland General Hospital, where they still do the baby birthing ceremonies as captured by Georgia Public Broadcasting in March of 2020.

S18: With all this rain we’ve had lately, oh, my goodness, it looks like another baby. Oh, my. Going to let me cover what we cover. This one here. OK, got that baby to London here. We’ll need a clip. Just a tiny little clip. Oh my. Oh my goodness. It looks like another girl. Another girl.

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S2: So I started this episode asking why the Cabbage Patch kids had hit it so big. But scrolling through the new Cabbage Patch kids currently available for purchase on the Internet, I started to wonder. Could they do that now? I had assumed going into this that, of course, they couldn’t just look at them. There’s such an obvious artifact of the 1980s. Their paltry Isais alone marked them as toys of another era. Seriously, if you’ve perused children’s toys lately, we are living through a real big guys moment. But the more I came to know about the Cabbage Patch kids, the more complicated this question seemed to me. I still don’t think they would be a hit now. But it’s not because the dolls are so 1980s. It’s because they were one of the first really contemporary toys and their innovations have become a commonplace. The cutting edge technologies that set the Cabbage Patch kids apart, the manufacturing differences that enabled them to be both mass marketed and just for you have been wildly improved and become totally pedestrian, customizable, personalized, cute in a kind of garish way that so many dolls now thinking about them only in terms of other dolls, other toys is maybe thinking too small, the mass production of something that seems artisanal, that makes it to market, feeling authentic. That’s what so many companies aspire to do. The Cabbage Patch kids came out of Georgia in 1983, but what they achieved is what just about every advertiser on Instagram is going for, trying to position itself as bespoke and special, even though it’s a widely available commodity. It’s the mass marketing of uniqueness.

S12: And the Cabbage Patch kids nailed it. But the Cabbage Patch kids actually did start out as an oddball art object. And I think that really is the root of everything that’s compelling about them, why they contain so many sticky contradictions, unique and common, cute and ugly, wholesome and dangerous. A rag doll throwback and a computerized herald of what was to come is outrageous and dark that people thought over these dolls, that people got hurt because of them, that they were ripped out of children’s hands, that they became a showcase for our limitless avaricious ness. But all this bad behavior does make more sense to me than it used to those dolls. They have a lot of freaky soul. This is Decoder Ring. I’m Willa Paskin. You can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin. And you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode? You can email us at Decoder Ring, at Slate Dotcom. If you haven’t yet, subscribe and read our feed and our podcast or ever you get your podcasts and even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin. It was edited by Benjamin. Fresh Decoder Ring is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Fresh. Cleo Lhevinne is our research assistant. Thanks to Harry Rinka, Paul Ringel, Oliver Arlacchi, Jack Sweet, Emily Gavelled, June Thomas and everyone else who gave us help and feedback along the way. See you next month.

S19: Oh.