We’re just nine Fridays away from Christmas (breathe…you’ll be fine) so of course the television commercials are finally moving away from politics to food and toys. Last night Gary and I saw Mr. Potato Head on our screen and had a brief but happy conversation about our memories of the little toy. We both owned the original pieces that decorated real potatoes and we agreed that Mr. Potato Head has come a long way since his introduction to children in 1952. In fact, the way he was introduced is just one of the many fascinating parts of his history.
The iconic toy got off to a rocky start. It’s believed he was first created in the mind of a little boy for the entertainment of his sisters. His “funny face man”, made by combining various vegetables to create dolls, came to the attention of his uncle, George Lerner, a toy inventor, who then experimented with a potato with other fruits and vegetables as facial features. Mr. Lerner’s big mistake was coming up with the idea in the forties. Toy manufacturers thought the use of real food as a toy would be seen by a country in the midst of war as wasteful and irresponsible. But he finally convinced a cereal company to include the little plastic face parts as a premium in their boxes.
Thankfully Mr. Lerner didn’t completely give up on his original idea of the decorated vegetable being a major toy product. As the nation recovered from the war and the fifties began he showed his toy to the Hassenfeld Brothers. They bought the idea from the cereal company, named the toy Mr. Potato Head and launched the first ad campaign aimed at children. Their unprecedented move revolutionized the ad industry and resulted in the sale of one million kits in their first year of production. The facial pieces cost 98 cents and included hands, feet, ears, two mouths, two pairs of eyes, four noses, three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight felt pieces resembling facial hair. And a family was quickly created to include Mrs. Potato Head, Brother Spud, and Sister Yam, plus a line of accessories: car, furniture, pets, etc.
The further evolution of Mr. Potato Head is a reflection of the evolution of society. In the sixties the parts were modified to be less sharp so they would be safer, but that rendered them more difficult to use. There were also complaints from parents about rotting vegetables. So the plastic potato base was introduced in 1964. But even that change didn’t solve all of the problems that continued to plague the beloved spud. Over the next ten years the size of the parts, the size of the potato, even the size and shape of the holes were modified until the toy was safe and effective for young and old.
There was one more controversy to resolve, so in 1987 Mr. Potato Head gave up his pipe and became a spokespud for the Great American Smokeout.
Hasbro has developed many versions of Mr. Potato Head over the years, including those tied to themes and movie characters. He had a short-lived television show and has made guest appearances on a variety of shows, become a spokesman for other products and causes, and can be found on countless clothing pieces. And of course our grandchildren know him from his role in Toy Story. He was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. He has certainly become a celebrity! However, those of us who fondly remember poking a little plastic mouth and eyes into a real spud know that fame hasn’t gone to his head. He is still our humble “funny face man”.