Baby Snatcher: He Stole Her “Doll Baby” Concept To Make Iconic Cabbage Patch Kids

Consumer GoodsDesignHistory 16 Comments

In the early 1970s, Martha Nelson Thomas, a humble, soft sculpture artist from far western Kentucky, brought a new kind of doll and concept into the world. Made entirely by hand, each soft-from-head-to-toe “Doll Baby” she birthed was “adopted out” to a loving family. But Martha’s labor of love turned into an unthinkable nightmare when a man named Xavier Roberts essentially stole her babies and recreated them under the name… Cabbage Patch Kids.

Martha was a very shy woman and her means of communicating and connecting with strangers was through her work. So her Doll Babies, which she sold at arts and crafts shows, were deeply personal extensions of her, and intended to be more like members of the family, rather than just another doll for someone to bring home. This is why she dreamed up the adoption concept for each of her unique creations.

Doll Baby

Martha Nelson Thomas’ Doll Babies

So when you purchased a Doll Baby from Martha, she positioned the sale as an adoption, which was made “official” with a packet of important papers that every buyer received. It included an adoption certificate, a letter from Martha that shared what the doll liked to do, as well as a letter from the Doll Baby that included his or her name.

Doll Baby_2

As the story that is now being told reveals, at one particular craft show, a man named Xavier Roberts from rural Georgia bought a few Doll Babies from Martha and started “adopting” them out of his own gift shop. After learning that Roberts was overcharging for her dolls, Martha got very uncomfortable and took the dolls back, denying him permission to sell them anymore. According to a friend of Martha’s, Xavier responded by sending her a letter, which threatened something along the lines of “If I can’t sell your dolls, then I’ll sell some just like them,” and he made good on his promise.

In the early 1980s, using Martha’s decade-old design, including her adoption concept, Xavier Roberts launched what he came to call Cabbage Patch Kids (originally Little People), a seemingly identical version of Martha’s Doll Baby. The only three glaring differences were that his dolls catapulted to icon status, caused riots among desperate shoppers, and made him an insanely rich man.


To add insult to injury, when Xavier was interviewed about how he came up with his Cabbage Patch Kids, he replied, I’m just “a good old southern boy with a good idea.”

Xavier Roberts Sitting in

Is anyone else’s blood boiling?!?!?!

There’s a lot more to this gut wrenching saga, which left Martha Nelson Thomas, who died of ovarian cancer in May 2013, heartbroken at the thought of her dolls being mass produced and sold as a commodity by someone else. So we are thrilled that Vice took the time to tell her story and set the record straight.

In their 16 minute documentary – The Secret History Of Cabbage Patch Kids – the Vice team of filmmakers travel to Kentucky to meet with friends and family of Martha, and hear how the Cabbage Patch craze affected her life. It’s a must watch.

  • Ellen

    This is exactly why getting a copyright is so important. There are always people out there ready to steal your ideas. Now I am happy we gave away my daughters’ Cabbage Patch Dolls. We found that they weren’t worth anything anyway. The Doll Baby dolls are probably worth more. I feel very sorry for Martha and her family. She tried to do something really good, and got burned.

    • Reba

      Don’t forget that at the time, Martha didn’t live in a world with Internet, or even the knowledge about copyrights. She probably didn’t think that someone would steal her idea either, as most creative people do until they learn the hard way.

      • Bedknobs_and_Boomsticks

        I think what Ellen means is Martha needed to have her dolls patented and trademarked.

    • Omar

      Nobody has to ‘get’ a copyright–it’s a right! You hold the copyright to your work whether you register it with the federal government or not.

  • canaduck

    Awful! That poor woman and who knew that Xavier Roberts was an enormous scumbag??

  • Judy Hill

    That’s horrible, I can remember buying his book & pattern.. didn’t know, that’s sad. What a ass!

  • InvisibleZombie

    This is horrid. So what should I do with my little boy Avery? It shouldn’t be his fault what his “creator” did.

    • Jennifer

      aaaawwwwwwwww, ai feel the exact same way about my “babies”!

  • mandygirlie238

    Is there proof that he said those things to her? “He responded by sending her a letter, which threatened something along the lines of “If I can’t sell your dolls, then I’ll sell some just like them,” and he made good on his promise.”

    • Guy Mendes, a photographer and friend of Martha’s, relays this part of the story in the documentary, and that is how he quotes the letter. We can only assume that the documentarians who made this film did their fact checking and vetted the folks they interviewed.

  • Collector

    Of course, if you dig any deeper, you will discover that she must not have been as upset about the “mass-production” of he dolls as they are claiming here. If you search for a Martha Nelson Thomas original doll baby you will get a LOT of hits – for machine made plastic doll heads made in Hong Kong that were sold, without bodies, in boxes under the name Martha Nelson Thomas original doll baby.

    • Melissa

      I have two Doll Babies from my childhood. You used to buy the heads (with an adoption paper) from the craft store, and then sew and soft-sculpt a body for them. My mom didn’t like the craze of Cabbage Patch Kids, and preferred to get me those, instead. (I ended up buying my own CPKs, as I liked their noses better, which is the one major difference. My brother teased me that Doll Babies had worms coming from their noses). I always thought Doll Babies came second and were a way to make CPK-like dolls at home, so I was sad to find out the truth. Such a shame. However, you’re 100% correct that Doll Babies were mass-produced (heads), too.

    • Rachel McDaniel

      Although the heads and pre-sewn bodies were mass produced, they still required a personal labor of love to complete. After attaching the head and stuffing the body, the hands, feet, arms, legs, butts and belly buttons all need to be hand sculpted. There are instructions on how to sculpt and make the baby. The birth certificate that comes with each head has a place that says that the doll baby “was made just for you” along with a place for the “creator” to sign. I have made several of these and they do require a good bit of effort to make correctly. There were also crochet patterns to make a fully crocheted body and crocheted clothes. I don’t think that Martha’s desire for a personal labor of love was compromised with these mass produced doll parts as they still required that element to complete.

  • John A Guthrie

    A good Intellectual Property lawyer could have easily protected the doll’s looks, the adoption marketing gimmick and the copyright / trademark elements. This lady was a rural Kentucky victim of everything I hate in the South. A business process patent on “adopting” a doll, sold at retail, strikes me as unique element that might stand protection challenge. There is no question the faces of the two dolls are TOO similar. Disgusting. RiGHT NOW I’m editing the Wikipedia page of the alleged mastermind. On Wikipedia, his own story is that he learned this from his momma.

    • Donnie Mays

      She did have a lawyer help her and they settled out of court for legally undisclosed amount of money. Did you watch the Vice video posted above?

  • Martha Jean Taylor

    I have one of her cabbage patch dolls with her stamp on it from 1982 and it says thomas and the other one says original appalations inc made in China