Yesterday morning, as I was scrolling on social media, I came across a story about the history of the Cabbage Patch dolls and it was interesting to reflect on the phenomenon of this popular 1980s toy trend and all of the ways this doll and adoption are intertwined for me.
The sensationalized story titled “The cutthroat saga behind the Cabbage Patch Kids craze” written by Leslie Gonzalez was originally published on the History 101 website (October 17, 2018). According to this article, the doll was patented in 1978 by Xavier Roberts and it turns out that while Roberts made his fortune from these dolls, he actually stole the idea from a woman named Martha Thomas who had been making these dolls and selling them in craft fairs in the Midwest.
One of the ideas Roberts stole from Thomas was the idea that these dolls were “adoptable.” Each doll had a story and a certificate of adoption with the doll’s unique name and “birth day” and the rest was blank for the child to provide his or her name and address as the adoptive parent. Both Thomas and Roberts had, as part of the production and sales of their dolls, the idea of having people pay “adoption fees” rather than buying the dolls. Of course, Roberts made millions of dollars off of the “adoption fees” for these dolls.
I was 15 in 1983, the year of the big Cabbage Patch doll craze, when people lined up in stores and fought over the dolls. I was aware of the dolls even though I wasn’t personally interested. I remember thinking about the name, the idea behind the “cabbage patch” and the adoption certificate. Then my maternal grandma gave my sister and I cabbage patch dolls for Christmas. Because back in those days they had only white and black dolls, my white sister received a blonde girl doll and I received a black girl doll named Addie Mae. Even though I wasn’t very racially aware back then, I remember feeling like the name was a stereotype.
In my family, we didn’t talk about the fact that I was a different race than anyone else. My family did not single me out for being Korean, and never made me feel like I wasn’t part of the family. I appreciated this in many ways since at the time I felt hyper-visible and targeted as an Asian in my nearly all-white school and community. Yet I also did wish there was some recognition of my difference. So while it felt somewhat odd to receive a black Cabbage Patch doll, I was grateful that my grandma knew enough to not give me a white one. I knew she understood it would mean a lot to me to have a doll that acknowledged that I saw myself as not white.
The Cabbage Patch Kids are still available and on their website you can “find your baby,” and your “perfect match.” Just like an adoption list website, you can “see adoptees” sorted by their eye color, gender, hair color, size and skin tone. Each photo lists the doll’s “adoption fee.”
You can also visit BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland where the employees dress like hospital nurses.
After customers pick out their dolls, according to the website, “you will be invited into one of our adoption offices to take the oath of adoption and complete your papers. Each hand-stitched Original comes with its own birth certificate and adoption papers. Congratulations! You just became a new parent.”
I’m not sure if the use of adoption in marketing dolls to children began with Cabbage Patch dolls but it didn’t end there, and This American Life has an episode about an FAO Schwartz newborn doll department set up as a “nursery” for adoption and what happens when all the white dolls sell out. The episode, Babies Buying Babies originally aired in 2008 under the show, Matchmakers.
When I talk about the way we are socialized in particular ways about adoption, this is what I’m talking about. As a researcher who studies adoption, one of the things that struck me the most about the Cabbage Patch doll narrative is how much it actually aligns with how adoption is practiced today and how the process of “adopting” a doll socializes children about adoption. The language used – “meet the adoptees” – and that you can search for the one you want by a number of characteristics, including race, and you receive adoption certificates and can even change the name of your doll – all of these are strikingly on point.
We are socializing children to think about adoption from very early ages. And as the This American Life story illustrates, race is part of this socialization. But, so is demand, and the framing of the “parent” as having all of the options and choices they want.
When my daughter was young, around 3-4 years old, I once caught her and a few of her friends playing “giving birth” with their dolls. One girl was on the floor, with a doll under her shirt, while the other two were saying, “push, push!” I also saw my daughter and her friends play-nursing their dolls. Of course, they were modeling what they saw in their own lives. Yet my daughter and her friends also knew a lot about adoption – from the media they consumed (think Disney) and from the language they heard in society in general. Both of my kids, but especially my oldest, was very interested in adoption because so many children’s tv shows and movies included adoption and child separation. My daughter knew the musical Annie by heart and thought all orphanages – including the one I once lived in – looked the same.
Socialization is powerful. The example of the Cabbage Patch Dolls are just one example. I think about all of the “adoption” campaigns our children (and the rest of us) see, many that are never discussed with us, and how these contribute to the grand master narratives about adoption. Adopt a highway, adopt an endangered animal, and of course, shelter pet adoption commercials and campaigns. My daughter now works with dogs professionally and we talk about how similar the ways dogs in shelters are described for adoption like they are for children in foster care. And when I was working in foster care, one of the youth I was working with to find an adoptive home told me that working on their description made them feel like they were, according to their words, “a puppy for sale in a window.”
Reading about the Cabbage Patch Dolls and realizing that not only do they still exist, but the adoption storyline has continued so strongly in contrast to American Girl dolls, which have no adoption component even though many of the other aspects are the same (such as picking out characteristics of the doll you want). But there are other doll companies that use adoption as a theme.
Adora has a selection of dolls for adoption. The description from the website: “Adopt one or all of Adora’s Adoption Babies and bring them to their forever home!…There are four sweet and adorable babies to choose from, each with a different skin tone and eye color. There is Hope, Cherish, Precious and Joy – and each come with a certificate of adoption, pacifier, hospital bracelet, disposable diaper and is swaddled in a cuddly soft microfiber blanket…Your little one will build a special bond with their Adoption Baby as they experience what it’s like to bring a baby home. Little parents in training can name their baby, and start their very own baby doll family while learning to nurture and engage in pretend play.”
Then there is the Little Mommies Adoption Center where, similar to the Cabbage Patch doll’s Babyland, a child can go pick up their new doll in a hospital and formally adopt their new “baby.”
What other ways do we socialize children to the master narrative of adoption?