In the early 1970s, Martha Nelson Thomas, a humble, soft sculpture artist from far western Kentucky, brought a new kind of doll and concept into the world. Made entirely by hand, each soft-from-head-to-toe “Doll Baby” she birthed was “adopted out” to a loving family. But Martha’s labor of love turned into an unthinkable nightmare when a man named Xavier Roberts essentially stole her babies and recreated them under the name… Cabbage Patch Kids.
Martha was a very shy woman and her means of communicating and connecting with strangers was through her work. So her Doll Babies, which she sold at arts and crafts shows, were deeply personal extensions of her, and intended to be more like members of the family, rather than just another doll for someone to bring home. This is why she dreamed up the adoption concept for each of her unique creations.
So when you purchased a Doll Baby from Martha, she positioned the sale as an adoption, which was made “official” with a packet of important papers that every buyer received. It included an adoption certificate, a letter from Martha that shared what the doll liked to do, as well as a letter from the Doll Baby that included his or her name.
As the story that is now being told reveals, at one particular craft show, a man named Xavier Roberts from rural Georgia bought a few Doll Babies from Martha and started “adopting” them out of his own gift shop. After learning that Roberts was overcharging for her dolls, Martha got very uncomfortable and took the dolls back, denying him permission to sell them anymore. According to a friend of Martha’s, Xavier responded by sending her a letter, which threatened something along the lines of “If I can’t sell your dolls, then I’ll sell some just like them,” and he made good on his promise.
In the early 1980s, using Martha’s decade-old design, including her adoption concept, Xavier Roberts launched what he came to call Cabbage Patch Kids (originally Little People), a seemingly identical version of Martha’s Doll Baby. The only three glaring differences were that his dolls catapulted to icon status, caused riots among desperate shoppers, and made him an insanely rich man.
To add insult to injury, when Xavier was interviewed about how he came up with his Cabbage Patch Kids, he replied, I’m just “a good old southern boy with a good idea.”
Is anyone else’s blood boiling?!?!?!
There’s a lot more to this gut wrenching saga, which left Martha Nelson Thomas, who died of ovarian cancer in May 2013, heartbroken at the thought of her dolls being mass produced and sold as a commodity by someone else. So we are thrilled that Vice took the time to tell her story and set the record straight.
In their 16 minute documentary – The Secret History Of Cabbage Patch Kids – the Vice team of filmmakers travel to Kentucky to meet with friends and family of Martha, and hear how the Cabbage Patch craze affected her life. It’s a must watch.