Classic Toys: Mr. Potato Head
The classic Mr. Potato Head toy is familiar to just about everyone since the 1950s. He has become an icon with a special place in most people’s hearts, and enjoys a devoted following that will doubtless keep him around for many years to come. As his story goes, Mr. Potato Head is a toy that was nearly ignored in the early stages of development.
George Lerner of New York City was a designer and inventor with several successful inventions. In 1949 he designed and developed an early version of what would eventually become known as Mr. Potato Head. When the toy first came about, it consisted of a collection of plastic body parts with pushpin backs that were to be inserted into a fruit or potato. The fruit or vegetable was not sold with the toy and was to be supplied by the customer. This waste of food was not a popular notion with a population that had just recently dealt with the frugality and shortages of WWII. Because of this, Lerner was unable to find a toymaker that was willing to manufacture the toy. Eventually he sold his invention for $5,000 to a cereal company that planned on distributing the toy as a promotion in the cereal boxes.
In 1951, Lerner shared his idea with Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld, the proprietors of a small school supply and toy business (which would later become Hasbro). They found the toy to be unique and were so intrigued they paid $2,000 for the cereal company to halt production and bought the rights back for $5,000. They offered Lerner a $500 advance and a 5% royalty.
The Mr. Potato Head Funny Face Kit was released on April 30, 1952. Advertised as a kit that could be used with “any fruit or vegetable” it included 28 parts and sold for less than $1.00. Parts included bodies, shoes, hats, facial hair, noses, eyes, ears, glasses and even a pipe. Also that same year, Mr. Potato Head was the very first toy to be advertised on television.
Mr. Potato Head was a great success, earning Hasbro over $4 million in its first year. In 1953 Mrs. Potato was introduced. The happy couple had two children, Brother Spud and Sister Yam. Parts to make pets came along, as well as possessions common to American families, like a Potato Family car, appliances and even a boat.
Plastic potato heads weren’t introduced until 1964, followed by a new line of sidekicks called the Tooty Frooty Friends. Among them were Pete the Pepper, Cooky the Cucumber and Katie Carrot.
In response to the desire among children to have action toys, the Jumpin’ Mr. Potato Head! was introduced in 1966. By winding him up, he was able to fly a kite, use a jackhammer, fish and, of course—jump. Mrs. Potato Head had a jumping version too, but her tasks were more housework in nature. (So much for the Women’s Movement.)
The huge popularity of Mr. Potato Head led to other companies cashing in on the craze, which resulted in Donald Duck and Bozo the Clown Potato Head sets, as well as a Dunkin’ Donuts Mr. Donut Head, manufactured in 1969.
By the early 1970s, the demand for Mr. Potato Head playsets had waned, and only the Mr. Potato Head character was made available. He was restyled and rereleased in 1983 with some significant changes. He now had permanent arms and a ‘rear’ compartment for storage of extra body parts. In 1985 Baby Potato Head was released, and the line continued to expand with Mr. Potato Head was used by various companies as premiums. The McDonald’s version was so popular that is was included in the Happy Meal as two separate promotions.
In 1987 there were two major changes to Mr. Potato Head: his arms became replaceable and he quit smoking. His pipe was taken away and he became the spokes-spud for the American Cancer Society that year. He continued to remain a popular classic toy, but with the release of Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995, Mr. Potato Head sales soared once again.
There’s something very satisfying to a child to design something their own way, and to redo it over and over just the way they like it. Maybe Mr. Potato Head’s versatility is partly responsible for his classic quality and enduring popularity.
I would like to acknowledge a wonderful resource I accessed for many of the facts that made writing this blog possible. It is Dennis Martin’s mrpotatohead.net website. His site is a comprehensive source for Mr. Potato Head collectors and features amazing photos of his phenomenal collection.