Every Black Friday, the ugliness of capitalism is laid bare across the country with hours-long lines and throngs of customers trampling each other. But the usual rigamarole pales in comparison to the 1983 holiday season, when Americans went to war over Cabbage Patch Kids.
This dark and deeply weird chapter of history is coming to life in a new, limited series on HBO, produced by Issa Rae and Laura Dern. Variety reports that The Dolls, currently in development, will examine “the aftermath of Christmas Eve riots in two small Arkansas towns in 1983, riots which erupted over Cabbage Patch Dolls.”
If you, like me, were unaware about the Cabbage Patch Kid riots, let’s take a brief trip through time to the 1970s, when an artist named Xavier Roberts created little dolls out of fabric and used clothing. According to the Timeline, he called them “Little People,” and sold them out of “a converted medical clinic in Cleveland, Georgia which he renamed ‘Babyland General Hospital.’” Customers didn’t merely buy the dolls, they “adopted” them: the dolls were kept in “incubators and cribs throughout the space” and came with a “a birth certificate, adoption papers, and a name pulled from 1938 Georgia birth records.”
What was the allure? Accurately describing the dolls as “kind of ugly,” psychiatrist David Reskof told the Asbury Park Press that the doll “resonates with feelings of being small and helpless just like the children.”
“Owning this doll can turn the tables,” he posited. “They can care for it and it raises the child’s self esteem.”
Children in America became instantly obsessed. Coleco, the toy manufacturer that licensed the dolls from Roberts, ran out of its inventory of 2 million by November. This is what happened next, via the Timeline:
Store managers tried to curb chaos by stocking the dolls in the front of the store. But as soon as they paid, customers were afraid to face the throngs pushing through the doors, spilling from the parking lots. People ripped boxes from strangers’ arms without a second glance at the style of doll itself. One man even flew to London to buy a doll for his five-year-old daughter. Harrod’s had received 1,000 dolls but they were gone within hours — “although the customers queued quietly, to be sure.” Scalpers were reselling the $25 dolls for $150. At the same time, knockoffs called Flower Kids were pouring in from overseas. Sometimes the only way to tell the difference was by the lack of bellybutton.
On December 1, 1983, despite wind gusts of 37 miles per hour and a wind chill of -7 degress, two dozen people showed up at Milwaukee County Stadium, the Associated Press reported, after two radio show hosts joked that a B-29 bomber would drop thousands of Cabbage Patch dolls from the sky.
Across the country, people waited outside stores in freezing or near-freezing temperatures, the AP reported. At one New Hampshire store, police monitored the line to ensure no violence erupted. At a store in Paramus, New Jersey, “one woman trying to get to the line for the dolls elbowed another woman to near unconsciousness,” one newspaper reported.”
A December Time Magazine article described a “near riot” of 5,000 people at a Hills Department store in Charleston, West Virginia. “They knocked over the display table. People were grabbing at each other, pushing and shoving,” store manager Scott Belcher told the magazine. Newsweek described the bizarre nationwide frenzy as “an army had been turned loose on the nation’s shopping malls.”
The “Cabbage Patch Wars,” as one Central New Jersey Home News headline put it, subsided after Christmas that year, at which point Coleco had sold more than three million dolls. The casualties of the war included “a little boy hit over the head in Charlestown, W. Va., a pregnant woman trampled in New Jersey, a broken leg in Wilkes-Barre, a busted nose in Easton, a broken nose in Pottstown.”
Cabbage Patch Kids remained a cultural icon for years: In 1985, the U.S. sent a Cabbage Patch Kid to space, and in 1992 the doll became the official Mascots of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team. They even appeared on commemorative stamps that celebrated the 1980s.
Though the obsession with Cabbage Patch Dolls is perhaps now long-forgotten, consumer mania and the forces that drive it are age-old. Dern and Rae’s show aims to “explores class, race, privilege and what it takes to be a ‘good mother.’” This is gonna be good.