People Are Sending Old Dolls To A Peculiar Location For One Weird Service
By Dan Fitzpatrick
Mental Flare Staff
Everybody had a favorite childhood possession — a love-worn teddy bear or a special blanket. Even well into adulthood, these items hold a lot of personal meaning, maybe more than people care to admit. But is there any place where old mementos like these are still treasured?
For that, we have to go to the land down under. One unassuming storefront houses a place where childhood memories are in the care of a very unusual physician. Step right in, it’s time for your appointment…
These days, kids see toys as completely replaceable. Children break, lose, or forget about them without any consequence because their parents can always buy new ones straight off the shelves. But not everyone still treats toys so lightly.
On a quiet street in Sydney, Australia, a group of people regard toys as precious objects — almost as if they’re people. They do everything they can to make sure these items remain in pristine conditions for future generations. But not for free.
If you were to glance through the window, you would be forgiven for mistaking these experts for doctors. Their work does resemble surgery. They even think of themselves as medical professionals, in a sense. That’s probably how they came up with their business name.
Meet the hard workers behind the Original Doll Hospital. This unusual establishment has served the greater Sydney area for over 100 years now. Of course, a specialized business like this doesn’t just pop up for no good reason.
Back in 1913, an Australian general store owner named Mr. Chapman imported Japanese dolls, which were popular at the time. However, the fragile figurines often cracked and broke during the voyage. Chapman couldn’t make any profit off of damaged goods.
So he turned to his brother, Harold Chapman, for some assistance. A local handyman, Harold had a knack for fixing up just about anything. With his vast array of tools and close attention to detail, he began repairing his brother’s broken dolls.
As more and more Sydneysiders learned of Harold’s skill, he opened up his own repair business in the back of the general store. While he patched up all manner of household goods, toys became his specialty.
Following the end of the Second World War, Australia lifted its importing restrictions and Harold found himself flooded with more business than he could handle. It was a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
With his clientele base growing, Harold needed more hands on deck. He passed along the shop to his son, Harold Jr., who understood they needed more space for their large inventory. He relocated the store to its current location.
All these years later, the Original Doll Hospital remains a family business. Geoff Chapman, the grandson of the elder Harold, acts as the owner and “surgeon-in-chief.” Even in his 70s, he takes playing with toys quite seriously. But how has he been at it for so long?
It’s hard to believe how a doll hospital could survive in the age of online shopping, but to put it simply, they are good at what they do. Few other establishments in Australia, or the world, can mend precious items with such surgical precision.
Plus, they deal in saving highly personal and sentimental possessions. Most are one of a kind. Geoff says it’s not unusual to see a customer burst into tears once they see a previously damaged item restored to mint condition.
And make no mistake: this is hard work. Each member of Geoff’s team is a trained professional, and any slip-ups could result in an irreversible mistake. They might not be M.D.s, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take their job seriously. The hospital comparisons don’t end there either.
The front of the store even presents itself as a type of hospital, with separate areas dedicated to different types of repairs. Whatever the “patient”‘ may be, they will find a place to treat it.
Naturally, any doll hospital worth its salt has a ward for vintage dollhouses. These masterpieces are among the most detailed items on the antique market, so they require extra care. After all, the most coveted dollhouses sell in the millions!
But the Hospital doesn’t shy away from more ordinary items. Many teddy bears, often the most loved and run-down personal items, come through to get re-stuffed or to get a torn limb reattached.
Of course, the doll remains the true mainstay of Geoff’s Chapman’s business. No two are alike, so employees always have to stay on their toes. Some parts of the repair process are especially challenging.
According to employee Kerry Stuart, “The thing I like least is eyes. It’s a very difficult balancing act to get them right, so it does take a while. Sometimes I have to do them three times before I’m happy with them.”
Because dolls come in every shape and size imaginable, the shop has to keep a vast array of spare parts in stock. The tinkerers in the back are always linking up different limbs, torsos, and heads. But as much as the workers are like doctors, they are also artists.
They know the details are what really makes a doll precious. Many of their orders are to replace a toy’s hair or touch up its color. Emotionally speaking, these little things really connect a person to their childhood mementos.
Work at the Original Doll Hospital is far from typical, but the employees certainly take great pleasure in it — and so do their customers. At this hospital, everybody leaves smiling, but unfortunately, not everyone in the industry is so good…
Baltimore Sun / Jerry Jackson
When Cabbage Patch Kids dolls were introduced in 1978, they were an immediate hit. Noted for their adorable smiles and “desire” to be adopted by children, they were suddenly everywhere you looked!
Their prominence on the toy market was so abrupt that consumers never had the time of day to even think about where they came from. And perhaps that was what their creator, 21-year-old Xavier Roberts, had planned all along…
Truth be told, the Cabbage Patch Kids actually had a rather shameful backstory that Xavier and company executives have been attempting to keep secret all these years. But now, they’re finally being held accountable for what they did.
When Xavier first began developing the dolls, they were actually called the “Little People.” It was at that time that he developed the concept that the dolls could be “adopted” rather than purchased. It was an idea that no one had ever heard before!
At first, the dolls were only sold in Xavier’s own gift shop, but eventually, they got their own store, the Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia. After that, the young man’s business began to quickly blossom…
It wasn’t until four years later, in 1982, that he began to license out a smaller version of the toys to a company called Coleco. Xavier gave the dolls the Cabbage Patch Kids monicker and developed their unusual background story.
Xavier’s idea for the dolls’ story was this: when he was just 10 years old, he’d accidentally discovered the kids while following a BunnyBee. After that, it had become his mission to help find all the Cabbage Patch Kids loving homes. But Xavier had a dirty secret…
Apparently Xavier’s dolls weren’t as original as he’d led people to believe. In fact, there was already another line of dolls on the market that was practically identical to the Cabbage Patch Kids!
Several years before Xavier first introduced his product, an artist named Martha Nelson Thomas had already begun crafting similar dolls—which she called Doll Babies—to sell at local arts and crafts fairs.
One day, Xavier stumbled upon Martha’s dolls at a craft fair and was so smitten with them that he purchased several for himself. As Martha soon learned, he was more than just a fan of her idea…
Xavier loved Martha’s idea so much that he wanted to steal it. That included many of the details behind Martha’s Doll Babies, as well. For example, people didn’t buy Martha’s Doll Babies, they “adopted” them—and they came complete with a certificate and all!
Xavier brought the dolls back to his gift shop and began “re-adopting” them out to children, unbeknownst to Martha, at a higher price. Not only were the dolls not his own creation, but he’d completely stolen her business model, too!
Martha had already garnered lots of positive attention when she first introduced Doll Babies in the early 1970s. Right away, people could tell she really cared about the product she created.
Speaking of her love and dedication for her dolls, Martha’s longtime friend Guy Mendes said, “Martha was basically flat-out reinventing the doll. The Doll Babies were her brood. She shopped for them. She dressed them. They were expressions of her.”
When Martha caught wind of what Xavier was doing, she visited his gift shop, saw how much he was charging people, and demanded he give them back. In response, he wrote her an angry letter saying he’d sell his own dolls if she didn’t allow him to sell hers.
And so, not long after that, Xavier began selling the “Little People” dolls that launched his own career. Sadly, he was about to make a fortune on an idea that was never truly his…
Unfortunately, caught up in the passion of making her dolls, Martha never filed for a copyright before Xavier stole her idea. In the late 1970s, however, she did file a lawsuit against him, even though it didn’t go to trial until 1985.
Thankfully, the court ultimately ruled in Martha’s favor and she and Xavier ultimately came to an undisclosed settlement agreement. “She couldn’t tell us what the settlement was but she said her children would go to college,” her friend Guy recalled.
In the end, it wasn’t about money for Martha. She was passionate about creating dolls children could adopt and play with. Her dolls would never be as famous or lucrative as the Cabbage Patch Kids, but she at least had her integrity (and some much-deserved credit).
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Xavier. He’d taken his idea from someone else without permission. He might have made a good living doing what he did, but at the end of the day, the idea wasn’t his—and now everybody knows.
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