Inside The Cabbage Patch Riots Of 1983 That Left Dozens Of Shoppers Injured

Published December 22, 2023
Updated December 24, 2023

During the 1983 holiday season, people lined up in droves outside of toy stores across the U.S. to get their hands on a highly sought-after Cabbage Patch Kid — and the frantic hunt for the dolls soon devolved into violence.

Over the years, high demand for various toys has caused chaos during the holiday shopping season. In 1996, customers tackled a Walmart employee to grab the last Tickle Me Elmo in stock. And Furbys were so popular in 1998 that their retail price went from $35 to $100. But in 1983, it was Cabbage Patch Kids dolls that sparked what’s remembered today as the Cabbage Patch riots.

Cabbage Patch Riots

YouTubeShoppers clamor to grab Cabbage Patch Kids, the most in-demand toy of the 1983 holiday season.

That November and December, countless parents across the United States did everything in their power to secure a doll for their children. One woman drove through four states searching for a store that still had Cabbage Patch Kids in stock, while others paid well over retail price to buy them from re-sellers.

In several cities across the country, however, shoppers resorted to violence to get their hands on a doll. Dozens of people were injured, and several were even hospitalized.

But what was it about Cabbage Patch Kids that caused such a commotion?

The History Of Cabbage Patch Kids

The dolls that came to be known as Cabbage Patch Kids were originally created by a young man named Xavier Roberts.

As an art student, Roberts met another artist named Martha Nelson Thomas at a craft fair. She was selling soft-sculpture dolls she called “Doll Babies,” and Roberts asked Thomas if he could sell her creations in Georgia. She agreed to this arrangement for a while, but she eventually asked Roberts to stop.

So, Roberts created his own version of the Doll Babies.

Roberts handmade the dolls himself out of cloth, calling them “Little People,” but the real selling point for the toys was the unique “adoption” process. Each doll came with a name and a birth certificate, and Roberts insisted the dolls were not for sale but rather for adoption.

Babyland General Hospital

Facebook/Cabbage Patch Kids Fan PageCabbage Patch Kids are born from “Mother Cabbage” at BabyLand General Hospital.

As the dolls became more popular, Roberts converted a medical clinic in Cleveland, Georgia, into an “adoption center.” The dolls were not “made” but rather “delivered and adopted” by parents who had to raise their right hand and vow their undying love to the toy. Employees of the center, named BabyLand General Hospital, had to wear nurse uniforms, and visitors to BabyLand could even witness the “live birth” of a Cabbage Patch Kid in which Licensed Patch Nurses (LPNs) delivered a baby from Mother Cabbage. Adoption fees for the dolls ranged from $125 to nearly $1,000.

In 1982, the toy company Coleco Industries licensed the rights to produce vinyl-faced versions of the “Little People” dolls called Cabbage Patch Kids. They were mass-produced overseas and much more affordable than the original toys, selling for less than $30.

At first, many companies refused to sell the Cabbage Patch Kids, claiming they were too ugly to succeed on the mass market. However, the dolls quickly became one of the most sought-after toys of the 1980s.

The Cabbage Patch Riots Of 1983

The newly rebranded Cabbage Patch Kids went on the market in 1983. Suddenly — and somewhat unexplainably — demand for the dolls skyrocketed, and Coleco struggled to keep up. They were producing 200,000 Cabbage Patch Kids weekly, but it still wasn’t enough.

Man Posing With Dolls

X/@PilotArchivesA man in Virginia poses with the two Cabbage Patch Kids he managed to secure.

In November 1983, toy stores geared up for the Christmas rush. Retailers knew that the dolls were highly sought-after — but no one expected the full-blown riots that broke out in businesses across the nation.

At a Hills Department Store in Charleston, West Virginia, 5,000 shoppers lined up for just 120 dolls.

“They knocked over the display table. People were grabbing at each other, pushing and shoving. It got ugly,” said the store’s manager, Scott Belcher, in an interview with TIME.

A 1983 ABC News report on the frenzy for Cabbage Patch Kids.

The most highly-publicized Cabbage Patch riot took place at a Zayre department store in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Over 1,000 people camped out overnight, waiting for their chance to get their hands on a Cabbage Patch Kid.

However, the store had only 240 of the dolls in stock. People soon began to physically fight over the limited supply.

“When the doors opened at 8:50 a.m., ten minutes early, the pushing, shouting shoppers cleaned out the store’s stock of 240 of the popular dolls in 30 minutes,” the Times Leader reported at the time.

The scene became so chaotic that the store manager jumped up on the counter, waving a baseball bat and yelling at people to calm down. Dolls in their packaging were literally flying through the air. Police were dispatched, and there were at least five officers attempting to control the crowd in addition to the store’s five security guards.

In the end, five people had to be taken to the hospital due to the chaotic scene, including one woman who suffered three broken ribs and a broken leg.

Shoppers In Wilkes-Barre

YouTubeMore than 1,000 shoppers in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, rushed to get their hands on just 240 dolls, leading to one store manager wielding a baseball bat to defend himself.

“The woman was knocked to the floor while trying to hang onto a doll being snatched from her hands by an unidentified man who fled out the front door. Police said bystanders grabbed the doll from the man as he was fleeing the store. The suspect was not apprehended,” the Times Leader reported.

By the time Christmas came around, store shelves were empty, and dozens of people were injured. But why?

What Caused The Cabbage Patch Riots?

The Cabbage Patch riots made news headlines around the U.S. during the 1983 holiday season — but why exactly were the toys in such high demand?

Coleco’s president, Arnold C. Greenberg, claimed the dolls were popular due to their unique nature.

“The fact that the child can literally have a unique, loving, bonding experience separates it from other dolls,” Greenberg said, according to TIME.

But the riots indicated there may have been something more going on. At the very least, the scarcity of the product contributed to their popularity, and Coleco reaped the benefits. By the end of 1984, Cabbage Patch Kids and related products had generated over $2 billion in retail sales worldwide.

As Greenberg himself said: “We really create the market. We create the demand itself.”

While the demand subsided enough in the years following that there was no longer a need for riots over limited stock, Cabbage Patch Kids remained a hot toy. The dolls have since been handed off to a series of manufacturers, including Hasbro, Mattel, and their current company, Wicked Cool Toys.

Even today, Cabbage Patch Kids are still relevant. Just this year, the dolls were inducted into the Strong National Museum of Play’s Toy Hall of Fame. They served as the official mascot of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, were featured on postage stamps, and even had the 2008 U.S. presidential and vice presidential candidates made up as dolls.

But the mystery of exactly what it is that made them worth participating in violent riots for is still unsolved.

After reading about the Cabbage Patch Riots of 1983, discover 26 of the most dangerous Christmas gifts of all time. Or, learn about the inspiring woman behind the creation of Barbie.

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.