The spudly history of Mr. Potato Head

The spudly history of Mr. Potato Head

Illustration: Karl Gustafson

What is the measure of a man? Is it his gallant stride in his blue plastic sneakers? Is it the fact that his ears are attached to his head with little pegs? Is it the jaunty tip of his derby hat or his unblinking smile, aimed at friend and foe alike? In the case of Mr. Potato Head, it’s all of the above. But how did everyone’s favorite spud go from literal potato to star of the silver screen and beyond? To find out, I dug up a starchy harvest of background info on everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic tuber.

Mr. Potato Head was conceived in 1949, the brainchild of Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner. Lerner originally came up with the idea of inserting small, pronged body parts into fruits and vegetables to create a “funny face man.” You see, World War II had just ended, and times were tough—which is why folks like Lerner often took potatoes and other sturdy veggies straight from the garden, creating crude dolls for children in the family. As a child, Lerner reportedly made potato dolls for his sisters, using other fruits and veggies like grapes and carrots for facial features.

But although Lerner’s idea made sense at the time, some frowned on the practice of wasting valuable produce as the war raged on. Eventually, a food company agreed to pay him a small licensing fee to distribute his packet of plastic potato facial pieces as a prize inside their cereal boxes. Lerner could have called it a day at that point, but he was so confident in his starchy creation that he showed the idea to two brothers: Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld, who conducted a small school supply and toy business called Hassenfeld Brothers. (Later shortened to Hasbro. Maybe you’ve heard of it.) The brothers were intrigued by the unique product, so they paid the cereal company $2,000 to stop production of Lerner’s plastic parts and bought the rights to the toy for $5,000. Mr. Potato head was officially born on on May 1, 1952.

The original toy kit was objectively terrifying. It cost $0.98 and contained hands, feet, ears, two mouth options, two pairs of eyes, four noses, three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight felt pieces meant to resemble stylish facial hair. The best part: the original Mr. Potato Head kit did not come with a potato torso, so children had to provide their own potato to enjoy the toy.

Screenshot of Mr. Potato Head on actual potato
Screenshot: JTH’s GAMES (Fair Use)

At this time, Mr. Potato Head became the first toy advertised on television and, thus, the star of the first advertising campaign to be aimed directly at children. Over one million kits were sold in the first year, proving one very important hypothesis: kids will pester their parents into purchasing the most bonkers garbage.

So, is there a... Mrs. Potato Head? Not until the following year, when she was added to the product line alongside Mr. Potato Head’s “Brother Spud” and “Sister Yam.” Together, they formed the nuclear Potato Head family with all the mid-century trimmings, including a car, a boat trailer, a kitchen set, and a potato-friendly stroller.

The family lived out the American Dream happily—that is, until the 1960s, when parents looked up from their vodka martinis and figured out that their kids were ingesting the small pieces and cutting themselves with the pointy ends. By the late sixties, the Child Protection Act of 1966 and the 1969 Child Protection and Toy Safety Act were both passed, allowing the FDA to ban toys that were deemed unsafe. Hasbro pivoted, placing Mr. Potato Head’s face and body parts on less sharp, more kid-friendly pegs.

The only problem was that kids had trouble cramming the parts into their rock-hard potato bodies. By 1964, the company decided to include a plastic potato “body” in each kit, getting one step closer to the Mr. Potato Head prototype we know and love today, although it wasn’t until 1975 that manufacturers doubled the potato body’s size and increased the accessory dimensions to make the toy even safer for kids. Hasbro also replaced Mr. Potato Head’s signature holes with flat slats, making it harder for kids to face pieces the wrong way around. Fortunately, the company reintroduced the toy’s round holes in the 1980s—which led to little freaks like myself creating high comedy (inserting an ear into the mouth hole).

Mrs. Potato Head eating Lays chips in commercial
Screenshot: JTH’s GAMES (Fair Use)

Corporeal changes notwithstanding, Mr. Potato Head has become a stately personality unlike any other. In 1985, Mr. Potato Head received four votes for mayor of Boise, Idaho, a campaign that won the Guinness World Record for “most votes for Mr. Potato Head in a political campaign.” In 1987, the character became a “Spokespud” for the annual Great American Smokeout, surrendering his signature pipe in an effort to get with the times. Mr. Potato Head even starred in an ambitious art installation after Hasbro commissioned Rhode Island artists to paint 37 six-foot Mr. Potato Head statues to honor the toy’s home state. The statues reportedly exuded toxic fumes, sending several of the artists to the hospital with respiratory infection and topical burns—but the thought was there, wasn’t it?

Mister Potato Head in early 2000s commercial
Screenshot: JTH’s GAMES (Fair Use)

When you think about it, the toy’s longevity and ever-evolving timeliness is pretty remarkable. Think back to 1995, when Mr. Potato Head made his film debut in Toy Story after a Pixar lawyer scored rights to the character’s likeness (no such luck for Barbie, who didn’t appear until later films). According to a 1995 Associated Press newswire, the flick had a major impact on classic toy sales, prompting parents who played with toys like Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, and Etch A Sketch to buy the shiny new Toy Story-inspired versions for the next generation. The AP reported that Hasbro expected Mr. Potato Head sales to rise at least 25% after the movie’s premiere—and this was way before the Toy Story sequels. Amid rotting produce, child safety hazards, and the demands of public life, Mr. Potato Head has found a way to withstand the test of time. Whether the toy’s popularity is fueled by nostalgia or the sheer delight of a customizable potato plaything, one thing is certain: playing with your food never goes out of style.

DISCUSSION

By
codfangler

“Mr. Potato Head was conceived in 1949, the brainchild of Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner. Lerner originally came up with the idea of inserting small, pronged body parts into fruits and vegetables to create a “funny face man.” You see, World War II was underway, and times were tough—which is why folks like Lerner often took potatoes and other sturdy veggies straight from the garden, creating crude dolls for children in the family.”

Am I reading this correctly? World War II was over in 1945.