In the weeks leading up to Christmas 1983, pandemonium erupted at toy stores across America as shoppers scrambled to get their hands on the season’s hottest commodity: Cabbage Patch Kids. People camped out for hours, hoping to nab one of the chubby-cheeked dolls, but demand drastically outpaced supply. Police had to be called in to quell customer outbursts, which sometimes turned violent. A pregnant woman in New Jersey was trampled by a stampede of frantic customers. Adults grabbed dolls away from children. One store owner opted to have his stock of Cabbage Patch Kids delivered in an armored vehicle.
Above, an archival news segment from New York station WABC captures the wacky heights of the consumer craze now known as the “Cabbage Patch Riots.” The clip includes footage of a department store manager wielding a bat to protect himself from shoppers, who scream and grasp as boxes of Cabbage Patch Kids are hurled into the crowd by the store’s staff. On the ground at a New York-area Toys “R” Us, reporter Josh Howell finds a more orderly scene—customers needed a coupon to be able to buy a Cabbage Patch Kid—but the store’s supply sold out within minutes. “I missed work, I’m late for work, to get this for my little girl,” one dad tells the channel, showing off his new Cabbage Patch Kid. “I’m not going to tell my boss.”
Why did American parents—“otherwise dignified, calm, mannerly,” as Howell puts it—go collectively bonkers for Cabbage Patch Kids? When the dolls were first mass-produced and released to toy stores in 1983, the market was rife with newfangled, electronic gadgets like the Walkman and the Atari Gaming System. Cabbage Patch Kids, with their doughy bodies and homely little faces, seemed refreshingly quaint by comparison. The dolls “promised a return to simplicity,” writes Timeline’s Stephanie Buck. “[They were] something you could just … hug.” Coleco, the company that manufactured Cabbage Patch Kids, deliberately targeted Cabbage Patch ads at adults, predicting that parents would be eager to buy the dolls as wholesome gifts for their children.
The toys themselves may have been low-tech, but the production process that created them was rooted in advanced technologies. Using computers, Coleco was able to diversify its designs, making each Cabbage Patch Kid unique. No two dolls looked exactly alike, they each had different names, and every doll came with “adoption papers” that could be signed by the children who took them home. It was a clever marketing strategy that positioned Cabbage Patch Kids as something more than a mass-manufactured toy. Each one was distinct and special.
And so, as the WABC footage shows, people were desperate to get the dolls for their own special little humans. “What is it, two hours to go to Pennsylvania? I think it’s worth going there,” one dejected woman, who left the Toys “R” Us without a Cabbage Patch Kid, tells the outlet. “If not, I’ll try California, I have a niece that lives in California. I’ll go all over.”