This is a note for Martha Nelson Thomas, RIP. Written by Claire Milbrath
Published in Issue 19
Picture of Martha by Guy Mendes
In 1982, an old woman in a bonnet cried, “I don’t like their faces, but I want one!” in a line up at the local toy store. Millions like her flocked to stores to buy the hottest must-have toy of the century: Cabbage Patch Kids. Fights broke out, arms were broken. 200,000 Cabbage Patch Kids were manufactured per week. Xavier Roberts, the “inventor” of CPKs, made millions off the dolls and their branded blankies, bottles, and clothes. He converted a Cleveland medical clinic into “BabyLand General Hospital,” where sales clerks dressed as nurses sold families their new baby.
Photos from Babyland General Hospital
One CPK joined the Young Astronaut Program and was shot into space wearing a space suit and helmet. Xavier purchased a 30-room mansion, equipped with a limousine and 24-hour chauffeur. But the success of these scary potato babies should be attributed to a small town Kentucky woman named Martha Nelson Thomas, who was known locally for her soft sculptures she called Doll Babies. Martha, described as a humble and painfully shy artist, created her Doll Babies as a way to communicate with others. She shopped for, dressed, and named her babies. Martha talked about how she “birthed” her dolls, and to buy one meant to adopt one and care for it for life. Each doll came with an envelope labelled IMPORTANT PAPERS, including adoption papers, a letter from Martha, and a letter from the doll explaining their likes and dislikes.
CPK’s Adoption Papers
Promotional materials from CPK
In the late 1970s, Martha found Xavier Roberts re-selling her babies at a local gift shop. When she removed them in dismay, Xavier decided to make his own. Martha didn’t believe in the mass production of her babies, or in copywriting or signing their bodies—unthinkable things to do to one’s offspring! Xavier signed the bare ass of each baby he produced. He stole Martha’s soft sculpture design and even her idea for adoption papers. Martha’s nightmare had become a reality—her babies had become dehumanized toys. Martha held on dearly to her babies as she watched the world enter the CPK craze. Her dolls, in turn, stayed loyal til her death, filling the full front row of pews at her funeral.
Martha and her babies
© 2020 The Editorial Magazine