The History of Mr. Potato Head

Patented in 1952, Head Sold Separately

A Mr. Potato Head float at a Thanksgiving Day parade
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Moment Mobile/Getty Images

Did you know that the original Mr. Potato Head was missing a head? The original model didn't come with the familiar brown plastic potato.

Inventing Mr. Potato Head

In 1949, Brooklyn inventor and designer George Lerner (1922–1995) came up with a revolutionary idea: a toy that children could design themselves. His toy came bundled as a set of plastic body parts—noses, mouths, eyes—and accessories—hats, eyeglasses, a pipe—that were attached to pins. Children would then decorate a potato or other vegetable with the pieces, inventing as they went along. 

Lerner shopped his toy idea around for a year but met with resistance. During World War II, the U.S. had suffered through food rationing and somehow using a potato as a toy seemed like a waste. So, instead, Lerner sold his idea to a cereal company for US$5,000, who would distribute his plastic parts as prizes in cereal. 

Mr. Potato Head Meets Hasbro 

In 1951, the Rhode Island Hassenfeld Brothers company was primarily a toy manufacturing and distributing company, making modeling clay and doctor and nurse kits. When they met George Lerner, they saw great potential and paid the cereal company to stop production, buying the rights to Mr. Potato Head for $7,000. They gave Lerner $500 in advance and 5 percent royalties for every set sold. 

Those first sets had hands, feet, ears, two mouths, two pairs of eyes, and four noses; three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight pieces of felt suitable for beards and mustaches. They came with a styrofoam head that children could use, but instructions suggested a potato or other vegetable would do as well. 

50th Birthday Party For Mr. Potato Head
In 2002, Mr. Potato Head celebrated his 50th birthday, with these retro examples of the old spud. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The First TV Ad for Children

The first television advertisement directed to children, rather than adults, was by the Hassenfeld Brothers for Mr. Potato Head, with the toy riding in a wagon and playing with kids; it premiered on April 30, 1952. The kits sold like hotcakes: the Hassenfelds earned more than $1 million in the first year; in 1968, they changed their name to Hasbro, and today they are the third largest toy company in the world.  

Mrs. Potato Head and the Kids

By 1953, it became clear that Mr. Potato Head needed a family. Mrs. Potato Head, their children Yam and Spud, and the children's friends Kate the Carrot, Pete the Pepper, Oscar the Orange, and Cookie Cucumber soon joined the family. A Mr. Potato Head car, boat, and kitchen were soon marketed, and eventually, the brand expanded into puzzles, creative play sets, and electronic hand-held board and video games. 

Hasbro's later successes include Monopoly, Scrabble, Play-Doh, Tonka trucks, G.I. Joe, Tinker Toys, and Lincoln Logs; but the first and most influential was the famous spud. 

Safety Issues 

The United States was changing rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, and by the late sixties, the first child safety laws were passed, the Child Protection Act of 1966, and the 1969 Child Protection and Toy Safety Act. The gave the Federal Drug and Safety administration the ability to ban unsafe toys: the Consumer Product Safety Administration wasn't formed until 1973. 

Mr. Potato Head's small pieces of plastic with sharp pins on them were considered unsafe for small children. At the same time, parents complained that they kept finding moldy potatoes under their kids' beds. In 1964, Hasbro began making hard plastic bodies, and eventually larger body and part sizes for its plastic potato. 

Kylo Ren Mr. Potato Head
Kylo Ren Mr. Potato Head. Hasbro

The Modern Mr. Potato Head

Hasbro has developed a reputation for responding to cultural changes, or perhaps taking advantage of them. In 1986, Mr. Potato Head became the official "spokespud" of the Great American Smokeout, surrendering his pipe to then-surgeon general C. Everett Koop. In 1992, Mr. Potato Head starred in an early Public Service Announcement for the Presidents' Council for Physical Fitness, renouncing his role as "couch potato." In 1996, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head joined the League of Women Voters in an advertising campaign to get out the vote, and in 2002 when he turned 50, he joined the AARP. 

Mr. Potato Head has become a staple of American culture over the years. In 1985, he received four write-in votes in the mayoral election in the potato hotbed of Boise, Idaho. He also had a starring role in all three Toy Story movies, where he was voiced by veteran character actor Don Rickles. Today, Hasbro, Inc. still manufactures Mr. Potato Head, still responding to cultural changes with special Mr. Potato Head kits for Optimash Prime, Tony Starch, Luke Frywalker, Darth Tater, and Taters of the Lost Ark.

Sources

Everhart, Michelle. Even at 50, Mr. Potato Head still all smiles. Quad City Times. August 22, 2002. 

Miller, G. Wayne. Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies That Make Them. New York: Times Books 1998. 

"Mr. Potato Head." Western Pennsylvania History Spring 2016:10. 

Swann, John P. "Clacker Balls and the Early Days of Federal Toy Safety." FDA Voice. U.S. Food and Drug Association 2016. Web.