As the previous article on Legos mentioned, it’s special indeed when a toy that we Boomers enjoyed as children survives the economic upheavals and the buying/selling/absorptions of the companies that originally produced them. Such is the case with the subject of today’s I Remember JFK memory: Mr. Potato Head.
Mr. Potato Head first appeared in 1949. An inventor named George Lerner enjoyed playing with fruits and vegetables as a child. He would attach other fruits and vegetables to, say, a potato so that he would end up with a creation that had a carrot nose and grape eyes, which he would then present to his younger sisters. They would delight in playing with the “dolls” until they would literally deteriorate. As an adult, he recalled with fondness how much fun it was, and decided to create something a bit more durable.
In 1949, he designed arms, legs, and facial features to be stuck into fruits and vegetables. The idea was a bit distasteful to Americans who still had wartime rationing fresh in their minds, as well as earlier memories of nearly starving in the Great Depression.
Lerner tried unsuccessfully to market his toy for a couple of years. Finally, in 1952, he showed it to a pair of brothers who had been specializing in the textile industry, but who had developed a small business on the side that was selling toys and school supplies. It was unlike anything they, or the world, had ever seen, They bought the rights for $5,000. That would turn out to be one world-changing investment.
On May 1 of that year, Mr. Potato Head appeared in stores for the first time. For 98 cents, you got a box full of accessories to turn a spud into a lovable little guy. The toy was a huge hit, but perhaps it had to do more with what happened the day before.
On April 30, 1952, Mr. Potato Head became the first toy ever advertised on the young medium known as television. That first year, over a million kits were sold. Many thousands of a package of 50 additional stick-on accessories were obtained via mail from an included order form. The toy was such a hit that the Hassenfeld brothers decided to concentrate their time and efforts into the manufacturing and marketing of toys. Thus, Hasbro went from a textile company to the more familiar one we grew up with, and which continues to thrive today.
Mrs. Potato Head was added in 1953, Brother Spud and Sister Yam shortly afterwards.
It wasn’t until 1964 that a plastic potato was added to the kit. That put an end to raiding the potato sack for a toy at playtime. Well, it discouraged it, anyway. I remember many fun rainy afternoons over at my best friend’s house in the mid 60’s turning genuine tubers into strange little guys with three eyes, an ear coming out of the forehead, etc.
During the 60’s, other critters were added to the menagerie. These included Frankie Frank, Oscar the Orange, Pete the Pepper, and Mr. Mustard Head. Successful for a while, they eventually disappeared. But Mr. Potato Head and his family have soldiered on, more popular today with kids than ever.
Of course, the times have forced changes in Mr. Potato Head. But the changes have been reasonable, logical, as opposed to politically correct.
The parts became swallow-proof (aka bigger) in 1975, and the toy effectively became aimed at a younger audience. I have great memories of playing with Mr. Potato Head at the age of eight or nine, but now the toy was being marketed to the kindergarten age. In 1986, the venerable gentleman surrendered his pipe to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop as part of the Great American Smoke-Out. I suppose that was a worthy cause, but that pipe was my favorite accessory.
Nowadays, Mr. Potato Head is one of the most recognizable toys ever made. He’s been in the movies (Toy Story), the comics (several Far Sides featured him), and in the world of advertising. That’s right, Mr. Potato Head, who was the first toy advertised on the boob tube, NOW advertises for others!
He also put Hasbro on the map, and Hasbro is one of the few surviving toy companies from our childhoods. Just think, if not for a chance encounter between the Hassenfeld brothers and one George Lerner, we might have missed out on GI Joe, Play-Doh, Easy Bake ovens, and who knows what else. So here’s a tip of the stick-on plastic derby to Mr. Potato Head: a real shaper of history.