In the early 1950s, a strange phenomenon began occurring in family households across America: potatoes started disappearing from kitchen vegetable bins at an alarming rate, and the odd thing was, they weren’t ending up on the dinner table.
In fact, the potatoes were being purloined by children of all ages, who were using them to create cartoonish, three-dimensional caricatures, courtesy of a wildly popular new toy called Mr. Potato Head. The idea for it couldn’t have been simpler: the Mr. Potato Head kit consisted of a few-dozen pronged plastic parts—hands, feet, ears, eyes and mouth, among many others—that children could then insert into an otherwise lowly brown spud or similar item of produce, to create a comical anthropomorphic being. Despite its simplicity, however, like most ideas of genius, Brooklyn toy inventor George Lerner’s 1952 brainstorm had the rest of the world scratching their (non-potato) heads and wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
What made Mr. Potato Head so popular is anyone’s guess. In truth, Lerner’s invention was slow to catch on. A lot of toy companies rejected it at first, concerned with a plaything that relied on actual fruits and vegetables as components. (“What might happen if the potatoes or other perishables rotted, and began stinking up children’ bedrooms?” they must have fretted.) Finally, the Hassenfeld brothers (later Hasbro), toy manufacturers from Rhode Island, bought into the concept and introduced the first Mr. Potato Head Funny Face Kit to wide popular acclaim.
A year after Mr. Potato Head’s introduction, as though to prove the adage that there’s a love story in even the most unlikely of circumstances, Mrs. Potato Head joined her soul mate, sparking even greater demand for the popular kits.
In the 1960s, with increasing government restrictions on sharp, potentially dangerous toy parts, Mr. Potato Head’s pronged pieces were outlawed, forcing the company to develop a plastic body in place of an actual potato. The new potato torso had pre-drilled holes to insert the pieces, somewhat limiting the creativity with which children played with the toy, but, in fact, making it safer for them to handle.
We’re happy to report that 60-plus years after he ambled onto the scene, Mr. Potato Head is still entertaining children, inviting them to create something that’s simply fun, from a few plastic parts and a charming idea.
Did You Know?
Mr. Potato Head has the distinction of having been the first toy to be advertised on TV. What’s more, the toy commercial took the risk of directly targeting the children themselves,instead of their parents. It might seem commonplace today, but back at the dawn of the television era, it was considered a radical idea.