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If you were a kid in the ‘80s, you probably, at some point, had a Cabbage Patch Kid. The soft-bodied baby-like dolls, each of which came with its own adoption certificate, were a worldwide phenomenon, even instigating riots amongst parents at toy stores.
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Every doll also came with a signature on its rear end — that of Xavier Roberts, the manufacturer and supposed creator of the Cabbage Patch Kids. But a new Vice mini-documentary, “The Secret History of the Cabbage Patch Kids,” reveals that the dolls were actually invented by artist Martha Nelson Thomas, who died of ovarian cancer in 2013. According to the 16-minute doc, which is part of Vice’s American Obsessions series, Roberts stole the idea after coming across Nelson Thomas’s dolls at a fair, and eventually turned them into a $2 billion franchise.
Artist Martha Nelson Thomas with her ‘doll babies,’ the original Cabbage Patch Kids. (Photo: VICE)
Martha Nelson Thomas started working on her “doll babies” — her name for the line of toys — in the 1970s. “Martha was basically flat-out reinventing the doll,” Guy Mendes, a photographer and friend of Nelson Thomas’s, told Vice. “The doll babies were her brood. She shopped for them. She dressed them. They were expressions of her.”
According to Nelson Thomas’s husband, Tucker Thomas, Roberts first came across the doll babies at a craft fair. “[He] saw Martha’s dolls and purchased one of them,” Thomas told Vice.
Soon, Roberts’ adopted the idea as his own, and started mass producing Cabbage Patch Kids in 1982. “He took her idea and he made a fortune,” Mendes said.
Xavier Roberts admitted that his Cabbage Patch Kids, some of which are pictured here, were inspired by Martha Nelson Thomas’s doll babies. (Photo: Molly V/Flickr)
Not only did Roberts create similar dolls to Nelson Thomas’s, but he used the same marketing concept, providing adoption papers with each toy. The one difference? The signature. “Martha did not sign her work. Most of the time she sold it with children in mind,” Thomas said. “Children were taking this doll in as a member of their family and becoming a mom for the doll. And to find somebody’s name stamped on it totally took away from that feel.”
Representatives of Roberts or Cabbage Patch Kids did not respond to Vice’s request for comment.
According to the doc, Nelson Thomas eventually sued Roberts, who admitted to being inspired by her work but claimed to have created his own design. (Nelson Thomas never copyrighted the product.) The lawsuit, which was filed in 1975 and went to trial in 1985, was eventually settled outside of court, though the amount of the settlement has never been revealed. “She couldn’t tell us what the settlement was but she said her children would go to college,” Mendes said.
“We didn’t want the conflict to go on forever,” Thomas said. “That’s not a good way to live.”
Artist Martha Nelson Thomas sued Xavier Roberts, manufacturer of the Cabbage Patch Kids, after he allegedly copied her doll babies, above. The case settled for an undisclosed amount. (Photo: VICE).
Nelson Thomas isn’t the first woman to have had her ideas allegedly stolen and turned into a childhood icon. A similar fate befell the inventor of board game favorite Monopoly. According to The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, Monopoly was originally created by stenographer Elizabeth Magie Philips, but was later appropriated by a man name Charles Darrow, who sold it to Parker Brothers in the 1930s and became a millionaire. His name, and the story of how his board game idea saved him from bankruptcy, became nearly synonymous with the game itself.
Philips spoke out about her stolen invention after it became a hit, but never saw more than $500 for it, according to the book. “In 1948, Magie died in relative obscurity, a widow without children,” wrote author Mary Pilon, whose book was adapted in the New York Times. “Neither her headstone nor her obituary mentions her role in the creation of Monopoly.”
Like Philips, Nelson Thomas is now being recognized for her innovative idea. While many Cabbage Patch lovers still remember the name Xavier Roberts, Nelson Thomas’s husband says his wife’s legacy is intact. “[Xavier Roberts] marketed a product very well. I really don’t begrudge him,” Thomas said. “Martha and I had a wonderful life together. It wasn’t elaborate but it was wonderful. I’m not going to trade in that life for a few dollars.”