The Original Cabbage Patch Kids (and Other Christmas Morning Disappointments)

The Original Cabbage Patch Kids (and Other Christmas Morning Disappointments)

Carrie McBride
Dec 6, 2011

When I was in Louisville this fall for the ABC Kids show I took a side trip downtown to the Kentucky Museum of Art. Tucked among the folk art, quilts and other treasures was a large cloth doll that bore a striking resemblance to the (in)famous Cabbage Patch Kids whose shortage sparked a nationwide pre-Christmas shopping frenzy in the early 1980s. Not only was I fascinated to learn how this doll was stolen to become one of the biggest toy success stories ever, it reminded me of my mother's own (failed) quest to buy me a CP Kid and got me thinking about the inevitability and, perhaps, childhood rite of passage of Christmas morning disappointment.

First, the dirt on the scandalous history of Cabbage Patch Kids. Here's what the museum placard next to the doll said:

"In the early 1970s [Martha] Nelson Thomas created a series of endearing quirky soft-sculpture "baby dolls" which she peddled for "adoption" out of a large basket she carried around Lousiville to public events an bars. By 1978 her doll design and adoption concept were appropriated by a man from Georgia who set up a "hospital" from which his babies could be adopted. By the 1980s, the Cabbage Patch doll had become an enormous fad. Nelson Thomas's dolls were the prototype for one of the longest running doll franchises ever. She won a settlement in the 1980s and continued to produce her versions of the dolls."

In the timeline of the Cabbage Patch Kids history, Xavier Roberts claims to have "developed the marketing concept" of the adopted dolls in 1977. In a 1980 lawsuit, Ms. Nelson Thomas argued that in 1976 he asked to sell her dolls (which she also offered for adoption) at a gift shop he managed, but their negotiations fell apart. Her first attempt at legal recourse failed when a judge ruled that there was no infringement since Nelson Thomas didn't copyright her dolls.

I find this history fascinating, not to mention a cautionary tale for Etsians and others who create and make their own products. Cabbage Patch Dolls are interesting for a few reasons: they are marketed to girls and boys (a tidbit in a 2008 Doll Reader article reveals that the box was originally pink but changed to yellow and green), they come in several ethnicities/skin colors, and, most famously, the media-fueled demand for them paired with a product shortage in 1983 and 1984 marked the first holiday frenzy for a "must have" toy. In later years, shortages (in some cases, faux shortages) of Furbies, Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmos, the Wii and others would join the ranks of toys that parents across the nation hunted down, pushed and shoved each other for, and paid exorbitant sums for (pre eBay, no less) all to have the "hot" toy under the tree on Christmas morning.

My own Cabbage Patch Kid story is not so dramatic. I'm slightly embarrassed to report that I was about ten years old when CPKs hit the scene. That seems old (and uncool) to have wanted one and especially curious since I didn't really play with dolls growing up, but I can only imagine that friends must have had them or wanted them or thought they were getting them for Christmas. Or I succumbed to the commercials. I remember trooping around our small town with my mom to all the stores that sold toys without finding one. This was before the internet and would have required an hour's drive to reach civilization a mall. In the end, my mom hired a local woman to make one for me. I named the doll "Roberta" (I have no explanation for this choice.). She didn't come from a store or a cabbage patch, but from County Route 21. In fact, her cloth face was much closer to Martha Nelson Thomas' creations. In retrospect, I think it was pretty darn cool that my mom found a balance between fulfilling my Christmas wish and not getting caught up in the Cabbage Patch Kid hysteria. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed to not have the 'real' thing.

There is so much build-up to the presents on Christmas morning - most of it coming from television and commercials - that some disappointment is probably inevitable. No kid is going to get everything they want under the tree - nor should they. I remember another year when I was perplexed and underwhelmed to receive a nice set of real tools. Tools? Really? But, you know what, I really enjoyed using them that year and would spend hours after dinner chiseling away at bricks. (Did I know how to kick it or what?)

My son is only three, doesn't have much exposure to tv commercials and has yet to figure out that he can ask for certain toys. If he really, really, really wants a particular gift in the future, I'm not sure what, if any, lengths I would go to to get it. I'd like to think I'd stay above the fray and calmly explain to him why he's not getting it. But I guess I'll have to see.

What about you? Any memories of getting or not getting a "must have" toy from your childhood or with your own kids?

(p.s. If you had a CPK - leave their name in the comments. There is something hilarious about their names.)

(p.p.s. My interest was piqued by these fascinating name combos so I did a little more research and learned that Xavier Roberts used a baby names book from the 1930s to name the CPKs. Source: The Intellectual Devotional Modern Culture: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Converse Confidently with the Culturati by David S. Kidder & Noah D. Oppenheim via Google Books)

(Images: 1. Carrie McBride 2. Flickr member frotzed2 licensed for use under Creative Commons 3. Twentieth Century Fox via Take 148)

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