Contributor: Beth Lathrop
Director of Libraries
“Americans do not generally riot for causes, they riot for things.” Newsweek, December 12, 1983.
Before the long lines, fist-fights, and broken legs of Christmas 1983, the Cabbage Patch Kids were the lovingly hand-stitched creations of folk artist Xavier Roberts, known as The Little People. Roberts began making dolls using a soft sculpture technique to create expressions, belly buttons, elbows, and knees in 1976. Because he spent so much time hand-crafting and customizing each doll, Roberts would tell customers at arts and craft shows that the dolls were not “for sale.” If the buyer wished to adopt one, however, Roberts would be happy to provide an adoption certificate and witness a pledge to care for the “kid.” In 1978, Roberts formed Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. and opened the Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, where “doctors” wearing white lab coats would facilitate the adoption of Little People for $80-100. By 1982, The Little People had organically attracted national media attention and OAA, Inc. landed representation by a powerful ad agency and a lucrative licensing deal with home video game company Coleco. By October of 1983, parents were wrestling in toy store aisles to get their hands on the newly minted Cabbage Patch Kids. By December, the words “riot” and “mob” would accompany every mention of the doll on newscasts across the country.
The transformation of one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted dolls into the first major post-industrial toy craze was equally the result of shrewd marketing and manufacturing techniques as it was of the natural appeal of Roberts’ endearing creations, and it represents the dichotomy of innocence and materialism in American Childhood. Children always yearn for a soft toy to hug – but market research and focus groups were used to confirm this was in fact still true in the age of the home computer. The promises given to care for the doll and the official adoption certificates evoked a natural feeling of protective love – love that “can’t be bought” – but that love came with a price tag, and often with a black eye from an aggressive parent at the checkout counter. The individuality of each Cabbage Patch Kid made children feel they had a truly unique doll to love – but the individuality was created by machines in a factory, and an algorithm determined the unique combination of hair color, facial expression, dimple placement, name, and birth date. The heady combination of parental affection and acquisitiveness, fueled by well-timed spots on the Today show and an irresistible doll waiting for a forever home, created a holiday shopping behemoth that rears its ugly head to this day on Black Friday.
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