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40 Years After Original Cabbage Patch Riots: How A Former Clinic Started Stampedes

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Every so often, toymakers capture lightning in a bottle that ends up exploding into a magnificent and volatile storm of excitement. But the Cabbage Patch riots remain unique even in a long and ever-growing list of toy crazes, so infamous it remains the definitive benchmark to this day. A few elements had to line up perfectly to make these the toy to have, and part of that perfect storm began in what used to be a clinic.

It was 40 years ago that the Cabbage Patch riots kicked off in earnest, characterized by several violent outbursts in stores across the U.S. during the fall and winter shopping season of 1983. Major outlets like Macy’s, J. C. Penney, Sears, and Wards had to contend with mobs. Smaller retailers had to quickly brainstorm methods of crowd control with purchase tickets as hundreds – even thousands – of customers descended, sometimes armed with weapons. Not just any toy has inspired this kind of fervor, so how did a few simple design choices made in the ‘70s, along with retail policies from a Georgia toy shop, set the stage for popularity and disaster?

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Cabbage Patch Kids were the children of a Georgia native

Xavier Roberts drew inspiration from multiple sources / © Abramorama /Courtesy Everett Collection

The story of these adorable kids began with Xavier Roberts, a native of Cleveland, Georgia who got his start in brainstorming and crafting dolls in 1976, when he met folk artist Martha Nelson Thomas at a craft fair. Thomas frequently worked to create what are called “soft sculptures” and she eventually had a product line called Doll Babies. Roberts asked Thomas to supply him with dolls he could sell in Georgia.

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RELATED: Cabbage Patch Kids: The Facts About Them Are Too Strange to Make Up

For a brief time, Thomas allowed him to sell her Doll Babies but eventually stopped and sued Roberts. The two settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of time and Roberts took the Doll Babies idea and created his own version in ‘78, in part as an offshoot of what Thomas made and in part inspired by crafting techniques dating back to 1800s Germany. These, Roberts christened Little People.

Maintaining this business momentum, Roberts then partnered with one of the biggest toy companies at the time, Coleco, to officially license his soft sculptures. Between mass production with such a giant company and his own practice of traveling from state to state to promote this new product, it was impossible for America to overlook the Cabbage Patch Kids.

But there was one more seemingly quaint choice made that would turn these dolls from sweet kids to the force behind riots around the country.

A former clinic ended up playing a part in inspiring the Cabbage Patch riots

Computers ensured that every single baby was unique / Flickr

Already gaining popularity and enjoying an unprecedented spotlight decades before going viral was even a concept, the Cabbage Patch Kids got a new, creative stage upon which to shine with the opening of the BabyLand General Hospital. Roberts oversaw the construction of a retail facility located in what used to be a clinic, right in his native Cleveland, Georgia.

The budding lore of Cabbage Patch Kids named the BabyLand General Hospital as the “birthplace” of the Cabbage Patch Kids and fully committed to this story with amenities featuring the birthing, nursery, and adoption of premium Cabbage Patch Kids. Now, this growing fad had its own pilgrimage site for followers and this sense of purposeful travel would carry over well when the Cabbage Patch Kids hit other retailers’ shelves for the holiday season of ‘82, which is when mass production of them began in earnest.

Babyland General Hospital played into the experience of seeing the birth, care, and adoption of these dolls / Wikimedia Commons

Its production wasn’t quite massive enough, however.

Their popularity outpaced supply, especially after the dolls appeared at the International Toy Fair of New York City and hosted adoption events around the country. A timely Newsweek cover featuring the soft sculptures reached everyone else who couldn’t make those events. All the while, the dolls rose to prominence in an era when the Atari and Walkman gadgets were shouldering their way into the spotlight, notes Mental Floss; in this way, the Cabbage Patch Kids were a beacon of simple wholesomeness. Advertising teams knew this and made sure adults knew too by targeting parents looking for a good, dependable holiday gift for the little ones.

Overwhelming crowds flocked to stores around the country in what became the Cabbage Patch riots / YouTube screenshot

The stage was set and in rolled the 1983 shopping season and the Cabbage Patch riots that set such a frantic precedent it inspired hectic Black Friday shopping to this day.

Other successors would rekindle memories of the Cabbage Patch riots, but in 40 years since the original craze, even Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo never came as close to the same levels of outright violence. Perhaps that’s because of the emphasis on just how unique each and every Cabbage Patch doll was and how unique that would make each family feel. Computer programs randomized the combination of features so no two dolls would be alike except for all having adoption papers acting like a cute, empowering certificate of authenticity signed by the very child who would love it.

What are your memories of the Cabbage Patch riots?

The Cabbage Patch riots remain unbeatably infamous 40 years later / YouTube screenshot

RELATED: Do You Remember The Cabbage Patch Kid Craze Of The ’80s?

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