The cutthroat saga behind the Cabbage Patch Kids craze
Name one person who can’t remember their favorite toy. Can’t name one? That’s because toys have shaped our childhood since man picked up a stick and drew in the sand. It was the gateway to our imagination and food for our creativity. But for some, a toy was more than just a plaything, it was life itself. The Cabbage Patch Kid was the iconic symbol of toy obsession. Who didn’t own a Cabbage Patch doll? Every parent in America coveted the potato-faced baby doll for their child. But what if the Cabbage Patch Kid had a dark past? One with legal and creative controversy? You may second guess your future toy purchases.
1. There was a Cabbage Patch Kids craze in 1983
For those of you who were alive and breathing with any form of cognitive thought in the 1980s remember the Cabbage Patch Kids — especially the craze of 1983. Cabbage Patch Kids was a staple to the American childhood during the 1980s. It was a Black Friday sale, but instead of great prices on a 50-inch flat screen, you’re getting a vinyl face and soft-bodied toy for the full retail price.
And instead of a friendly tug-of-war with say the latest game console, you’re choking a woman with a purse strap in hopes she’d surrender the toy in her arms — your relationship with your own rugrat depended on it. Such was the Cabbage Patch days. You didn’t choose the CPK life, the CPK life chose you.
2. Before the time of iPhones and My Little Pony
Believe it or not, Cabbage Patch Kids were a hot commodity. People would legitimately camp outside toy stores, attack displays, and swarm parking lots for the chubby-faced plaything. And that was before the holidays. The craze would foreshadow the stampedes that would come in the decades that followed for other commodity-of-the-moment items like iPhones and game consoles.
It would later trigger a phenomenon that will become a normal occurrence every year: Black Friday. Marketing would have a field day and then some. But nothing can compare to the potato-faced angels targeted to young children around the country. But, how exactly did it come to be?
3. They weren’t toys, they were family
The story behind the Cabbage Patch Kids went a little something like this: Behind a magical waterfall, a little BunnyBee would fly around a cabbage patch and sprinkle magic crystals over an open field. Thus, a Cabbage Patch Kid was born. They are then taken to a BabyLand General Hospital where they are later “adopted” by small children.
They are then loved and cared for by innocent-eyed children all over the US. It’s so sweet it will give you cavities. The alleged creator of the Cabbage Patch Kids claimed that he came up with the idea one day as he was soft sculpting the dolls into being, and he himself created the backstory that would blossom into the Cabbage Patch Craze of the ’80s.
4. Meeting the maker
Xavier Roberts, patented the doll in 1978 and made his millions in the years that followed. This bearded man wearing a cowboy hat would enter the hearts of millions as he holds a doll in his hand and tells the same story before the media over and over again. What the media didn’t know, was that Roberts was a fraud.
Roberts never realized that out of those millions, many were fuming over what will be one of the biggest scandals in toy history. Until that reared its ugly head, Roberts was living in the lap of luxury, that is until of course, the impending scandal broke out.
5. Roberts was inspired by the folk-art movement
Cabbage Patch Kids creator Xavier Roberts claims that he was inspired in his earlier years as an art student by the folk-art movement and experimented with hand-stitching and quilting techniques to create soft sculptures. He claims that after several modifications, he found his niche in giving his sculptures a human shape.
By 1976 Roberts claimed to have created something truly unique: “Little People.” They were the little potato-faced children with a messy mop of yarn hair and wide painted eyes that we know today. That was around the same time he decided to take his creations to the next level and toured craft shows around the country. He wanted to showcase his little miracles.
6. He made his store clerks dress up as nurses
His creations caught the eyes of many. As the ’70s wrapped up and we were ushered into the MTV decade of the ’80s, Roberts converted a medical clinic in Cleveland, Georgia, and renamed it the “Babyland General Hospital” where he would sell his “Little People.” The way he marketed them was genius.
He transformed what was once a nursery for live infants, into a nursery for his Cabbage Patch Kids. And instead of salesclerks, Roberts turned his employees into nurses and doctors, giving them uniforms. He also requested that they interact with the dolls. The dolls “slept” in incubators and cribs and each doll was given a birth certificate.
7. They were simple but unique
Roberts knew how to market his creations. In an era where the desire for technology was on the rise, Robert’s so-called creations were not only emotionally appealing, but reminded consumers of a simpler time. A simple product for playful minds. The best part is no two dolls looked the same, each one had a unique name and characteristic that would appeal to each child.
Do you want a little red-head with blue eyes wearing a pair of overalls named Jimmy? You got it. How about a freckled face school-girl named Sara(h)? Why not! The possibilities were endless. But there was something not quite right about Robert’s creations. There was something familiar about the round-faced babies.
8. The idea may not be his
What was thought to be a lightning strike of genius would soon turn to a farce when one woman stepped forward claiming that Xavier Roberts was a fraud. According to her, it was she who was the original creator of the very beloved soft-plush toys that had graced our childhood for more than a decade.
And her name was Martha Nelson Thomas, and to her, the Cabbage Patch Kids had a different name: Doll-Babies. Soon, legal conflict would arise as Thomas sought to claim what was once a craft belonging solely to her. However, both parties would find dissatisfaction in the result.
9. Her name was Martha Nelson Thomas
In the early 1970s, Martha Nelson Thomas was an art student who had a knack for soft sculpture. Hailing from Mayfield, Kentucky, she went to art school in Louisville where she eventually created Doll Babies. She was shy and gentle in nature. For Thomas, Doll Babies were as much her blood as her own children.
In her own way, the dolls were a form of self-expression and a way to communicate with strangers — a way to reach out and express and communicate her love for her work and conveying her passion as a sculptor. After all, much can be said about a doll maker.
10. She saw her dolls as her children
With nimble and careful hands, Thomas would win over many when she showcased her Doll Babies. Of course, Thomas didn’t believe in selling her creations for just profit. No, they meant much more to her than that. So, of course, they had to be “adopted” opposed to being purchased. Making a profit wasn’t as important as her customers being happy.
In a VICE documentary, it’s reported Thomas would hand-stitch each doll. She would shop for them and dressed them. She made every expression and stitched every thread. Thomas even met her husband though her dolls when she showcased them at a Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, a fair where she would show the world her creations.
11. She didn’t want to exploit her dolls to mass-consumerism
Thomas communicated through her dolls — her love, her passion, and her craft. They were her contribution to the world. She didn’t believe that selling the dolls should be exploited to consumerism, but instead, treated lovingly. She wanted them to each have a personal touch. When she sold a doll, she would have a little note tucked into their clothes with a personal message.
Each message gave the doll an identity, which included a name and what the doll liked to do. This ranged from climbing trees, eating apples, laughing, and catching butterflies. A sentimentalist, Thomas believed there was a bit of life in her dolls. She believed they should be taken care of, loved, and cherished. However, things would soon take a turn.
12. She wanted her dolls to have an emotional appeal
Thomas was a part of an intimate community, and though her dolls were becoming popular, she never wanted to mass-produce her creations or exploit them to the ravaging world of American consumerism. She wanted her work to carry a sense of integrity, and with that integrity: love.
She was a humble artist who loved to create, and so with every stitch, and with every sewed eye, she repeatedly created a new life with a sense of purpose — to bring joy to those who valued her Doll Babies. But in a crowd of friendly and encouraging faces, lurked an unseen force that would take away the integrity of her Doll Babies. One of them was Xavier Roberts.
13. Roberts was selling her dolls in a gift shop in Georgia
According to several sources, it was said that Roberts was intrigued by Martha’s dolls and her adoption concept. He decided to purchase a few of Thomas’s dolls and re-sell them for his own profit. He sold the dolls in a gift shop in Georgia and when Thomas heard that he was selling the dolls for a higher price, she felt a chill race over her.
A close friend of Thomas, Guy Mendes, disclosed that Thomas took back her dolls from Roberts after relaying how uncomfortable she was in the way he was exploiting her product. However, Roberts was adamant in selling. He went to drastic measures.
14. He was going to sell the dolls with or without her help
Roberts was not pleased with Thomas’s reinvention and posed a palpable threat to her livelihood. He wrote Thomas a letter stating that if he can’t sell her dolls, then he would sell something like them. In other words, whether she provided him the dolls or not, it didn’t matter. He would continue to sell her style of dolls.
Thomas was grief-stricken at the possibility of Roberts stripping the very essence of what her dolls represented and slapping a price tag for his profitable gain. However, whether Thomas liked it or not, Roberts allegedly stole her idea. What came after shattered her heart.
15. “His idea” raked in millions
Roberts went on to create a near-identical doll with a similar adoption process as Thomas. Soon, he was producing not just one type of doll, but a whole line of them. Some were hand-stitched and soft-faced in Georgia, while others were massed produced with a hard vinyl face and a soft body.
He began to claim that he had created a new doll and with his creation came money — lots of money. He was making millions. He took her idea and created not just a fortune, but an empire. Unfortunately, the news came late for Thomas. She heard something that would make her go cold.
16. They looked almost identical
A woman who had purchased of Roberts dolls in the Georgia area approached Thomas and said how she saw her dolls were being sold at the Atlanta Airport. Thomas responded that she wasn’t selling her dolls at the Atlanta Airport. That’s when she saw the product in question.
Both were softly sculpted like her dolls, and though the eyes were a bit different, the shape remained the same. It was all so similar, even the marketing concept of adoption. All of which was born from the head of the Kentucky-born artist who was passionate about her creations. They were children, not dolls. But for Roberts, it was a hot ticket item.
17. His marketing strategy was genius
There’s nothing positive about Thomas’s ideas being stolen. It feels like an invasion — a personal robbery that stripped every meaning of creative integrity and fed for the masses. Thomas wanted her vision to be appreciated, while Roberts wanted his to make a profit. Though we can grind out teeth and stomp our feet, can we honestly judge Roberts?
Yes, he’s an oily snake who smiles pretty and acts innocent in front of the camera, feigning like the creative genius who solved life’s ultimate mystery. He’s no saint clearly, but he knew how to call a good product when he saw one.
18. He signed his name on every doll
Roberts did something that Thomas neglected to do on her own product which was (1) copyright her idea; (2) sign her name on the product. On every backside, the Cabbage Patch dolls bore the signature belonging to Xavier Roberts — a scribble of blue ink branding them for his empire. Thomas, on the other hand, saw the labels as demeaning.
She thought the dolls had a life of their own and really considered them as children. To her, children are not branded, they are loved. However, her sentiments would be her downfall in the Cabbage Patch scenario. It wouldn’t be long until Thomas would seek legal help.
19. He lived the high life…he wasn’t sorry
While Thomas was figuring out a strategy about how to approach the legalities of her product, Roberts was living the high life. He owned a mansion with 30 rooms, had a chauffeured limousine, and over 200 employees (it’s okay to roll your eyes). At the same time, people were going mad over the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Stores would sell out of the dolls the moment they hit the shelves as every child in America demanded to have a little smooshed-face “replica” of an infant. Some even hurt themselves (and others) just to get their mitts around the iconic green box. Many were completely obsessed.
20. There was an H. G. Wells radio moment
According to Timeline, a radio ad once jokingly announced that B-29 bomber would drop a 2,000 Cabbage Patch Kids over the Milwaukee County Stadium. The radio station roused their listeners that if anyone who showed up should bring a baseball glove and raise their credit cards for a passing plane to take pictures of their cards.
Little did they know that they were about to have an H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” scenario on their hands when over a dozen men and women congregated to the stadium, baseball gloves and all, with their credit cards ready and raised. People were crazy about chinless children.
21. Thomas sought legal help
While Roberts was flaunting his wealth, Thomas and her husband were just making ends meet. As they watched Roberts profiting from Thomas’s idea. The Garbage Pail Kids were making their mark into the toy market. Friends and family were appalled by the demeaning development in the Cabbage Patch parody and were completely repulsed.
In the end, Thomas went to receive legal aid from a lawyer named Jack Wheat. Wheat helped Thomas’s case, and when confronting Roberts on his Cabbage Patch idea, Roberts confessed that the idea entirely belonged to Thomas. He argued, however, he had his own spin on it, which was why the dolls had been such a success.
22. He admitted that Thomas inspired his designs
Roberts did not deny being “inspired” by Thomas’s design. However, no matter what she did, she lacked the dreaded copyrights to her own product. She was trying to win a losing battle. Though she made a claim that the Cabbage Patch Kid was a mirror image of her own Doll Babies, Thomas was not an aggressive person.
She wasn’t someone who became an attack dog and aggressively fight for her creative rights. The lawsuit was filed in 1979, it went to trial in 1985. It was six years of custody wrangling, but in the end, the lawsuit reached a settlement. The dispute ultimately fell in her favor, but nothing changed.
23. Thomas won a settlement
Glad to finally be over with legal action against Roberts, Thomas just wanted to continue with the rest of her life. She had enough of the constant battle between “he said, she said” and all she wanted to do was continue her artistic journey. What was emotionally important for Thomas was making sure her dolls had an impact on the people who adopted them.
She never did tell her friends and other members of her family how much she got out of the settlement. All she had to say was that all her children would be able to go to college, and she was happy with that feat.
24. Roberts was later bought out
Unfortunately for Roberts, other legal issues rose, and it wasn’t long after that he sold out for a little over 30 million dollars after the company producing the dolls filed for bankruptcy in 1988. Hasbro swooped in and purchased the Cabbage Patch Kids rights but didn’t have the desire to revitalize the doll.
Eventually, the Cabbage Patch Craze died down. But the effects of the craze would be tenderly imprinted on the memories of the children who had them. Some still collect Cabbage Patch dolls to this day. The biggest collection resides in Magic Crystal Valley, Maryland just two hours south of Baltimore.
25. People are still obsessed to this day
Magic Crystal Valley store owners and Cabbage Patch Kids collectors, Pat and Joe Prosey own 5,000 Cabbage Patch dolls and consider each one of them as their own children, even though they themselves have a real-life adult daughter. The Prosey’s are so committed to the idea that they are their children that they will correct you if you call them dolls.
“They are kids,” said Joe while being interviewed by ABC News. “We don’t use the word D-O-L-L — they might hear.” Though many would call them crazy to house that many dolls, the Proseys call it a passion. Luckily, they’re not so attached that they don’t let anyone else enjoy the cabbage patch fun. Those who want to adopt a Cabbage Patch doll for themselves can.
26. The Proseys own over 5,000 dolls
Since 1994 the Prosey’s have operated their own “adoption center.” They even have a pair of dolls that cost them more than $1,000, complete with their own mink coat, a pair of diamond studded earrings, and diamond cufflinks. Each doll is marketed uniquely with their own identity, just like they were in ’83.
But can you blame them? The Cabbage Patch Kid craze was everywhere. The name was on every lunchbox, pillowcase, vanity mirror, plates, and even hairdryers. They were riding the money horse hard and it paid out. One was even sent into space. Of course, it was limited edition.
27. Cabbage Patch Kids in space
At the tail end of the Cabbage Patch craze, Calico decided to do something stellar. They decided to send a Cabbage Patch Kid out into space. The CPK joined the Young Astronaut program and the doll “Christopher Xavier” is decked out in a spacesuit and helmet and is bucked up on the next space shuttle out into space.
Little Chris journeys out into outer space and becomes the first Cabbage Patch Kids to exit the earth’s atmosphere on a US Space Shuttle. The slogan for the project, “Cabbage Patch Kids young astronaut reaches new heights!” complete with a poster image of Christopher Xavier floating in the void of space with a space shuttle hovering in the background.
28. What became of Martha Thomas?
So, in the end, what became of Martha Thomas and her Doll Babies? Thomas continued her craft as a soft sculpture artist but wasn’t as prolific compared to the beginning of her artistic journey. As time passed, Thomas sought other creative outlets with her artistic skills and talents. Over time, she sewed purses, quilts, and even created dolls out of the drawings from the youngest members of her family.
Her little creations continued to spread joy, and her community valued her humility and kindness toward others. That’s what was so valuable to Martha, bringing a light of joy in people’s lives through her craft. Every creation sparked something in each child or each customer that made her special, if not memorable.
29. Her dolls attended her funeral
Though she touched many lives, Martha Thomas passed away in 2013 at age 62 after a hard struggle against ovarian cancer. At her funeral, many arrived with a doll made by Martha and were placed seated on a pew before her casket. Before her death, Martha worked with children in schools and after-school workshops.
She taught her pupils how to sew, quilt and weave while encouraging their creativity. She helped fund art schools and encouraged aspiring artists, regardless of the bumpy path in her past. She was the kind of person who valued the worth of, not just art, but the people who created them.
30. The nostalgia is real
Today, Roberts still has his BabyLand General Hospital opened in Cleveland, Georgia where the original soft sculpture dolls are still being hand-stitched today. Regardless of the questionable history behind the beloved Cabbage Patch Kids, they still held the same impact Thomas had hoped when creating the idea for the simple toy.
It serves as a cherished memory for many, serving as a companion, or a lifetime family member. They provided a canvas for the imagination and filled a void for many who nurtured love and compassion. Thank you, Martha Thomas, for bringing joy to both adult and children across the US.