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Before he was a "Toy Story" star, Hasbro's first major hit was … an actual potato.

By Tim Nelson
March 01, 2021
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Hasbro's line of potato head products is back in the news these days, with the toy maker announcing it would drop the "Mr." from the line of toys, though the names Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head would still refer to individual anthropomorphized potatoes that kids could create and play with as they see fit. 

The subtle change might take certain Potato Head fans some getting used to, but it certainly wouldn't mark the most significant change in the history of this particular food-based toy. In fact, it wouldn't even come close. 

Behold, the bizarre, unexpected story of how one man's observation that kids play with their food would end up entertaining generations of kids while also starring in one of the most beloved animated films of all time. 

Is America ready to play with its food?

The Mr. Potato Head concept was the brainchild of George Lerner, a Brooklyn-born inventor who spent his childhood making dolls for his sisters out of potatoes from the garden, fashioning rudimentary facial features out of fruits and vegetables. Over time, that idea evolved into a toy that'd give kids the tools and accessories they needed to transform sturdy starches and vegetables into dolls of their own. 

By the time Lerner began formally pitching the idea in 1949, however, potential business partners were skeptical. Only a few years removed from the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II-era rationing, the idea of encouraging kids to "waste" perfectly good food by turning it into a toy didn't sit well with some. Eventually, Lerner was able to get a food company to agree to put some of the plastic pieces in its cereal boxes, handing Lerner $5,000 for his troubles.

That's (obviously) not not where the story of Mr. Potato Head ends. In 1951, Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld, owners of a small toy company called Hassenfeld Brothers (which we now know as Hasbro) saw Lerner's idea and fell in love with it, paying the cereal company both $5,000 for the rights, plus an extra $2,000 to halt their production. They gave Lerner a $500 advance and a 5 percent cut of every Mr. Potato Head kit sold, which sure sounds like a fairly good deal in hindsight. And thus, the first real version of what we know as "Mr. Potato Head" was "born."

Potatoes sold separately

As you might've gathered from Lerner's original source of inspiration, the original Mr. Potato Head didn't come with a "potato" at all. Each of these early kits came with 28 plastic facial features including eyes, nose, mouth, ears, accessories like pipes or glasses, and, most unsettlingly, hair. The potato body? Back in the day, you had to go out and find your own dang potato (or tomato, or — even more unexpectedly — a cucumber) to jab with pointy sticks yourself. Kids whose parents would rather not have them stab the family's starches could "practice" making faces on an included bit of styrofoam. 

It's hard to say whether creating a face on styrofoam or giving hair to a lumpy potato is a more unsettling image, but those potato head kits (1952 retail price: $0.98) sold like hotcakes. Mr. Potato Head's early success was no doubt aided by its starring role in what was literally the first-ever televised toy commercial. Perhaps because parents had no experience resisting the urge to buy something their kids saw on TV, Mr. Potato Head supposedly surged to $4 million in sales (the equivalent of just under $39.2 million in 2021) in a matter of months after its launch.   

Out of the garden, into mass production and the movies

Mirroring the trajectory of many American families in those postwar years, the Potato Head family would grow, also enjoying the trappings of a more (upwardly) mobile way of life in the form of cars and boats. Mr. Potato Head met Mrs. Potato Head when she was introduced in 1953, and potato children "Brother Spud" and "Sister Yam" (the Boomers of the family) soon followed. 

Things seemed swell with the Potato Head family until the 1960s, when it suddenly occurred to the government that having kids shoving pointy-ended, easily swallowable bits of plastic into potentially moldy produce maybe wasn't such a great idea. Though the Child Protection and Toy Safety Act wouldn't become law until 1969, Hasbro decided to play it safe by ditching the "BYO potato" model in favor of an included plastic spud that could hold facial features without the need for sharp sticks. In a move to further reduce potential choking hazards, the plastic potato doubled in size in 1975 to resemble what non-Boomers recall from their own childhoods. 

In addition to inspiring the product's initial popularity, Hasbro's media savvy also helped introduce Mr. Potato Head to a whole new generation thanks to 1995's Toy Story. Voiced by legendary comedian Don Rickles, Mr. Potato Head's status as the only licensed toy to appear in Pixar's smash hit (and its sequels) was a marketing coup for the then-43 year-old toy. 

So if you're somehow worried about how the switch from "Mr. Potato Head" to "Potato Head" will affect a toy that's nearing its 70th birthday, rest assured that this spunky spud has been through much bigger changes and come out all the better for it. As long as Hasbro doesn't decide to go back to making kids decorate their own lumpy potatoes, I have a feeling everything's going to work out just fine. 

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