In the fall and winter of 1983, a toy phenomenon swept across the United States, sparking a frenzy of consumer demand and a wave of violence.
The craze was over the Cabbage Patch Kids: those cloth dolls with plastic heads that come with adoption papers and birth certificates, which is as weird as anything we can think of.
The fact that each doll was marketed as unique and individual – with its own name, face and outfit – led to increased demand. Coleco Industries, the manufacturer, could not keep up.
The Cabbage Patch Kids were originally created by Xavier Roberts, a Georgia-based artist who sold his handmade dolls at craft shows and his own store, Babyland General Hospital. In 1982, he licensed his dolls to Coleco, which mass-produced them and renamed them Cabbage Patch Kids. The dolls were an instant hit, selling millions of units and generating over $600 million in revenue in 1983 alone.
Coleco had underestimated the popularity of the dolls and could only produce about two to five hundred per store, while thousands of customers lined up to buy them. The situation was worsened by the fact that the dolls were released in late October, just before the holiday shopping season. Many parents and children saw the dolls as the must-have gift of the year and were willing to do anything to get one.
The result was a series of violent incidents at several retail stores across the country, which came to be known as the Cabbage Patch Riots.
Customers hit, shoved, trampled, and even attacked each other with weapons like baseball bats and knives – just to get their hands on the hottest item of the day. Some stores tried to control the crowds by handing out tickets or vouchers to the first customers in line, but this only led to more chaos and resentment.
Some customers camped outside the stores for days, while others resorted to bribery, theft, or fraud to obtain a doll. The media reported on the riots with sensational headlines and images, fueling the hysteria and creating a feedback loop of demand and violence.
The Cabbage Patch riots were a shocking example of consumerism gone wild, and a reflection of the social and economic tensions of the 1980s. They also foreshadowed subsequent toy crazes, such as the Tickle Me Elmo in 1996 and the Hatchimals in 2016, which also caused outbreaks of violence and disorder. The Cabbage Patch riots showed how a seemingly innocent and harmless toy could become a source of conflict and controversy, and how a simple desire for a doll could turn into a dangerous obsession.