Amusing small fries for over fifty years, Mr. Potato Head has been made from a variety of materials. But whether his stout stature was comprised of Styrofoam, plastic, or even the common solanum tuberosum (that’s MISTER Solanum Tuberosum to you), this master of disguise has become more than just a toy: he’s a movie star, a spokespud, and an American icon.
Mr. Potato Head sprouted up in the mind of George Lerner, who was influenced by the rudimentary “make a face” toys of the 1940s which allowed children of all ages to put toy facial features on an actual potato. Lerner originally proposed to split up the individual pieces as a cereal box premium, but when this was not successful he marketed his them to the Hassenfeld Brothers (perhaps you know them better as Hasbro.) The brothers snapped up the well-heeled spud, and he debuted in stores in 1952 with a Styrofoam “practice” potato and instructions for kids to create a veggie pal of their own.
Immediately popular amongst the tater-loving tots of the 1950s, Hasbro’s famous potato got a marketing boost– and made toy history– when they advertised him on a new-fangled invention: the television. Jumping on the gravy train, Hasbro expanded their toy line to include his life partner, Mrs. Potato Head, as well as their children, Bruther Spud and Sister Yam, and the Spud-ette pets. As every growing family requires shelter and transportation, a potato family kitchen and an automobile were marketed (and of course, sold separately.)
The 1960s was a time of change for many, and the Potato Heads were no different. With the advent of plastic, Mr. Potato Head eschewed his foam cranium in 1964, for a more permanent polymer version. The addition of theme accessories allowed the Potato Head couple to define their role in the relationship: while the female of the species slaved in the kitchen with her feather duster, her dinner bell, and her popcorn popper, the boy-tato got to while away his hours with a fishing rod and a kite– though he had to bring home the bacon, apparently with his trusty jackhammer. When they weren’t illustrating the gender inequalities of the Age of Aquarius, the Potato Heads took up dancing (a special release called “Jumping Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head”) and travel (boxed sets allowed them to play “On the Farm,” On the Railroad,” or– in the astro-loving spirit of the times– “On the Moon.”)
Also during this period, the food group grew to include other friends called the Tootie Frooties, including Cooky the Cucumber, Pete the Pepper, Katie the Carrot, and Oscar the Orange (the only “fruit” in the bunch.) Later additions were the Picnic Pals: Frankie Frank with Mr. Mustard Head, Willie Burger and Mr. Ketchup Head, and Frenchy Fry and Mr. Soda Pop Head. In the late 1960′s, the toy franchise took their first venture into licensing when Dunkie Donut-Head was available for purchase exclusively at Dunkin Donuts.
This led the way for further licensing in the 1970s, when Donald Duck and Bozo the Clown accessories became available for Potato play. Later creations like the Potato Bird and the Potato Fish allowed children to attach wings or fins to their spud-niks. In 1974, the Potato Heads were redesigned with larger heads and fewer accessories; the Potato Head friends were discontinued entirely. In the late 1970s, Sears & Roebucks had exclusive rights to sell the Mr. Potato Head Game.
As television executives began to target more shows toward children, Mr. Potato Head surfaced in a segment of My Little Pony’s Friends called “Potato Head Kids.” Typical of the 1980s TV/toy synergy, new games and toys were released to tie in these new characters, all complete with another new function: the trapdoor.
In 1986, our favorite spud took his first step into activism. As the icon of American Cancer Society’s “Great American Smokeout,” Mr. Potato Head went cold-turkey and surrendered his pipe. He would later advocate voter turnout for the Get Out the Vote campaign in 1997. In a bizarrely cannibalistic– and more commercial– turn, he appeared as the official spokespud of the Burger King “Try the Fry” advertising campaign.
Like a starchier Muppet Movie, the Mr. Potato Head story culminates in his successful Hollywood career. The red carpet was rolled out for Mr. Potato Head during the 1990s when he earned his first movie role in Pixar’s acclaimed film, Toy Story. He was joined by his Mrs. (and a Barrel of Monkeys) for the sequel four years later. Recent appearances as Darth Tater (complete with all of the Star Wars villain’s accessories) have only further endeared Mr. Solanum Tuberosum to movie moguls, toy collectors, and children across the country.
If you have your own Mr. Potato Head memories that you would like to share, we welcome them in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this iconic toy.