A brief history of Mr. Potato Head – the unofficial mascot of the Spudrocket studio
In 1950 George Lerner molded a set of sharp-pronged plastic pieces – shaped like eyes, ears, noses, and mouths – that could be stuck into fruits or vegetables (in particular, potatoes) to create a range of funny faces. After pedalling this novelty item unsuccessfully for several years, he finally sold it to a breakfast food company. What they planned to do was to package a handful of the pieces in a bag, then offer them as premiums in boxes in cereal; what they offered to pay George Lerner was $5,000.
It was a fair deal, but it could have cost him millions. That’s because several months later Lerner had a meeting with Henry and Merril Hassenfeld the father and son team who operated Hasbro Industries. Known at the time for making play doctors’ and nurses’ kits, the company was looking to expand; one look at the funny face set and they felt certain that this was the item with which to do it. Except for one small obstacle: Lerner no longer owned the rights. Lucky for him, Hasbro didn’t let it drop, and eventually Merrill Hassenfeld reach an agreement where his company would pay the cereal company $2,000 to stop production on the premium.
The Mr. Potato Head toy was the first toy to ever be advertised on television. The pitch was simple and to the point: “Meet Mr. Potato Head, the most wonderful friend a boy or girl could have.” Millions of kids agreed.
Adam had Eve, Ike had Mamie, and with his great success that first year, Mr. Potato Head got a wife. Actually, he got an entire family, including not only Mrs. Potato Head, but – if your parents splurged for the super deluxe set – son Spud and daughter Yam.
In 1987, with anti-smoking campaigns in full swing, Hasbro announced, after third-five years, that it was no longer packaging Mr. Potato Head with his signature pipe. A big deal was made of his decision to quit and the last pipe was handed over to Surgeon General C. Everett Coop at a press conference for the Great American Smokeout.
Since being introduced in May 1952 – when he came boxed as a mix of 28 different face pieces and accessories – Mr. Potato Head has gone through some pretty major changes.
The original concept of using actual fruits and vegetables was dropped in 1964, when Hasbro began supplying a plastic potato with each kit. (The advent of plastic potatoes led to other plastic food and it wasn’t long before Cooky the Cucumber, Oscar the Orange, Katie the Carrot, and Pete the Pepper came boxed with Mr. Potato Head as ‘his Tooty Frooty Friends’ – an odd choice for a name, by the way, since three of the four were vegetables. They were followed 2 years later by the lesser-remembered Picnic Pals: French Fry, Franky Frank, and Willy Burger, as well as Mr. Soda Pop Head, Mr. Mustard Head, and Mr. Ketchup Head. What was unique about these 6 is that many of their face pieces were also food-influenced: ears were halved-sliced onions; mouths were made to look like baby gherkins.) Newly passed U,S, safety standards required that the prongs on the face pieces be less sharp (once revised, they were unable to puncture real food). And a lot of kids (trying to be good and picking up heir toys) had not only been putting the pieces back into the box when they were done, but also, the potato. Needless to say, over the time, this created quite a stink.
But starting in the late 70’s – and continuing through today – Mr. Potato Head has become virtually unrecognisable to the nostalgic eye. His head and body are now one piece, face parts are a good five times larger their original size (a result of more stringent safety regulations), and his derby hat and sensible shoes have been ditched in favour of baseball cap and sneakers (Yo! Tater Man!). None of this has stopped kids from loving – and wanting – him: it’s their parents who are shocked when they first see their old friend after a long time.
‘Kid stuff: great toys from our childhood’, HOFFMAN, D, 1996. Chronicle Books, San Francisco CA USA, ISBN 0-8118-1162-X
*Mr Potato Head is a registered trade mark of the Mattel Corporation and has no affilliation with Spudrocket (except for the fact that Natalie has had a lifelong love of Mr Potato Head, and at one stage wanted to marry him… until Mrs Potato Head came along and ruined her dream).
Pictures are from Natalie's own collection.