Time Machine

Time Machine: Cabbage Patch Kids dolls sparked riots, bribes, thefts in early '80s

Cabbage Patch Kids are shown in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 28, 1983, the first year the doll created by Xavier Roberts became a national best-seller for Coleco. (Gazette archives)
Cabbage Patch Kids are shown in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 28, 1983, the first year the doll created by Xavier Roberts became a national best-seller for Coleco. (Gazette archives)
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It’s been 40 years since a Georgia art student turned a talent for soft sculpture into a nationwide craze.

Xavier Roberts traveled to art shows in 1977 with handmade, nearly life-size dolls that came with birth certificates instead of receipts. He enlisted a few friends to help him create the dolls he called “Little People” for area craft shows and gift shops. Roberts called his technique “needle molding,” and no two dolls were exactly alike.

Roberts added to the doll’s individuality by forming a scenario in which each doll could be “adopted” from a cabbage patch. Prospective owners, who took an oath to be good parents, were presented with adoption papers and birth certificates.

The success of the dolls led Roberts to open his company, Original Appalachian Artworks, in Cleveland, Ga., in 1978, where he copyrighted his design ideas.

The dolls were created at Babyland General Hospital, where they were customized with belly buttons, dimples, a variety of hairstyles and even diaper rash.

The dolls, originally priced at $55, quickly became popular. By December 1979, Roberts expected sales of $750,000 on dolls priced at $90 to $110 each.

mass production

In 1982, the concept caught the eye of toymaker Coleco Industries in Hartford, Conn. Coleco licensed the dolls as Cabbage Patch Kids. The soft sculpted faces were swapped out with plastic, but the doll bodies remained soft cloth. A computer program guaranteed each doll was a little different from any other doll.

The dolls hit the store shelves for the 1983 Christmas season. They made history, becoming the best-selling doll ever.

Short supplies led to reports across the nation of arguments, bribes and thefts.

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A Pennsylvania woman suffered a broken leg during a rush for the dolls, and a grown man snatched a Cabbage Patch from a child in Charleston, W.Va., while women and children were knocked to the floor. Police were called when Miami shoppers toppled shelves and knocked over an older shopper in their efforts to nab a dollar.

A Maryland store hired six police officers to keep order, while another store allowed only 10 customers in at a time.

in cedar rapids

The dolls were scarce in Cedar Rapids, as well. No one rioted, but tempers flared when shoppers were met with empty shelves.

The Gazette reported the 80 dolls received one afternoon at the west-side Target were gone inside of an hour. J.C. Penney’s sold out and the store couldn’t get more until after Christmas. A Westdale Mall toy store, Toys by Rizzi, had a few original collector Cabbage Patch Kids from Appalachian Artworks that were priced at $124.99.

St. Luke’s Hospital, thinking some children would be happy with an official birth certificate for any doll, offered the documents through its BirthCare Center.

The overwhelming demand led to copycat dolls. Coleco sued. The copycats had no adoption papers or birth certificates or belly buttons. They also didn’t fool youngsters who insisted on the “real thing.” Some of the copycat dolls also were stuffed with industrial rags and didn’t meet flame-retardant standards.

Local crafters found a lucrative market in creating clothing and accessories for the dolls.

20 million dolls

The second year of the Cabbage Patch Kids’ mass production included “preemies” and Cabbage Patch pets called Koosas.

Demand for the dolls increased. Coleco denied limiting production, claiming the company sold every doll it produced and that the demand was overwhelming.

At the end of 1983, the company reported selling 3.2 million dolls. In 1984, sales stood at 20 million dolls.

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The dolls’ appeal puzzled a lot of grown-ups. They didn’t walk or talk. They didn’t even look like real babies,

Clinical psychologist Dr. J.D. Brewer of Cedar Rapids thought the Cabbage Patch Kids’ appeal was that they were fun to touch and hold.

“Any kind of doll allows the child to act out the role of caretaker,” he said. “It helps them to feel secure and become independent.”

never again

Our house was not immune to the pudgy baby dolls.

Under the influence of an insistent 11-year-old, I braved a crowd waiting on a limited supply of dolls on a Black Friday at a Jack’s store in Cedar Rapids. I was all but bodily moved forward in what I hoped was the direction of the doll display. Suddenly, arms and hands were grabbing from every direction, and boxes were flying over my head.

I grabbed a box that I hoped contained a doll my child would love and half-stumbled to a checkout line.

When I got to my car, I was exhausted and dazed. Never again, I told myself, will I ever battle others for an item in a store. And I never have.

The doll came with a birth certificate bearing the name Phyllis Gertrude, which my daughter didn’t like. She renamed her Michelle Lynette and submitted the name change to the toy company; it took six years, but the new birth certificate finally arrived.

still around

Hasbro produced the dolls starting in 1988, and Mattel obtained licensing rights for the dolls in 1994. Toys R Us took over production in time for the 20th anniversary of the Kids, producing a 20-inch doll. Two years later, the line passed to Play Along Toys. Jakks Pacific was the next licensee for the dolls in 2011.

Today, Wicked Cool Toys holds the license to produce Cabbage Patch Kids and accessories.

Original Appalachian Artworks still creates one-of-a-kind, soft-sculptured dolls at its Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Ga.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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