First posted on April 5th, 2011 on The Retroist Retro Blog and Podcast- CW post link
War is terribly destructive, that is an undeniable fact. And yet, during wartime, some of the most important products in history have been created. I could easily fill volumes telling you about wartime inventions such as the Computer, the Segway, and the VHS Tape. While these objects have changed the world, and impacted all of our lives in a very real way, I would not want to waste the small amount of space available discussing such shallow things. No friends, I want to talk to you about Dolls. Those of us that were alive during the 1980’s will more than likely remember the famous (and Bitter) “Green Leafy Vegetable War” It was this war that would lead to the “birth” of the Cabbage Patch Kids.
While Lettuce held onto it’s strong market share, Cabbage was dealt a nearly crippling blow by the sudden and unexpected rise of Spinach. Spinach had spent decades as a side dish of “older Americans” and was never able to find a way to appeal to the younger generation. Despite developing a character (Popeye the Sailor Man) who gained unnatural superhuman powers and tattoos by eating spinach, nothing helped it’s popularity…Until the 1980 Musical Film. The movie starring Robin Williams was an instant and universal hit with critics and audiences. The movie caused an incredible boom in the sales of Spinach to young people and to this day is considered a timeless classic. Spinach Co. realized they had struck gold and launched a major advertising campaign featuring the pipe smoking sailor. Soon, it was tough to walk down a street without seeing teenagers enjoying bowls of Spinach.
Cabbage had to react and quickly but was threatened with a lawsuit after its own sailor character, Captain Cabbage, hit television. By 1981 the situation was beginning to look dim until a hero emerged. A junior marketing executive (and part time hippie) name Xavier Roberts had a plan. Xavier had always had a love of quilting (who among us doesn’t) But he always thought the craft could do more. He dreamed of using quilting to make dolls! Not just any dolls however, incredibly weird looking dolls! Dolls so strange that people would actually believe rumors that they were created to prepare people for the effects of nuclear war on mankind. His first few attempts at quilting dolls were disastrous. A quilt cut into the shape of a doll, a quilt made by sewing a bunch of dolls together etc… Then he hit upon it a technique of using quilting to “sculpt” fabric, and his dream become a reality.
After some further development the dolls were introduced to the public at the annual Vegetable Growers Conference or “VegCon“. By the time they were released to retailers, riots began to break out at toy stores for the popular doll as well as grocery stores as frantic shoppers literally fought over heads of cabbage. While they had clearly found a hit, all was not well at Babyland General Hospital (the CPK home base.) Tension had begun to surface over creative control of “those leaf kids” as Cabbage executives had started calling them. Roberts envisioned a pure and non commercial (of course…hippie) existence for the Cabbage Patch Kids including the fact that children would “adopt,” rather than purchase the dolls. They would have birth certificates and real diapers. They would have social security numbers and civil rights, a good education, families of their own, a heartbeat!
The executives at Cabbage LLC had other ideas. Sales of cabbage and dolls to both adults and children alike had continued to skyrocket and they looked for more untapped markets. Picturing dolls dressed as animals or presidential candidates. Maybe even some that could talk or attempt to eat children’s fingers and hair! The possibilities seemed endless. Faced with the loss of their cash cow, the Cabbage board of Directors voted unanimously to offer a huge buyout package to Mr. Roberts. In exchange, he would release all future rights and creative control of the characters that had become almost children to him. When his principles were really put to the test Xavier Roberts did what I hope we would all do in the end. He sold out big time, and retired to the Florida Keys with an absolutely obscene amount of money.
News surrounding the exploits of Xavier has been pretty quiet in the years since his fame with Cabbage Patch Kids. He did sue Topps in 1989 after his sister “Trashy” Ashley Roberts sold them her idea for a card series of gross-out characters that bore a slight resemblance to the CPKs. The lawsuit was settled out of court and presumably Xavier got a few more bags of money, and Ashley got to keep telling barf jokes.
Who knows where Xavier Roberts is now (he’s at his palatial estate) but wherever he may be I hope he’s quilting…I hope he’s quilting.