The idea for Mr. Potato Head took root in 1949. George Lerner developed sharp pronged plastic face & body parts meant to be stuck into vegetables & fruits to create wacky visages. George shopped his idea around to various toy companies, but was met with repeated refusals. World War II had ended only four years before and Americans had not forgotten the many sacrifices they made to support the war effort, one of which included food rationing. The "waste not, want not" mindset was still firmly intact. It's possible many young adults still harbored not so distant childhood memories of the Great Depression which lasted from 1929 to the early 40s. Undaunted, George still had faith in his unpretentious little toy and so he pressed on.
In 1951, he managed to sell his idea to a food company for use as cereal premiums. Later that same year, George showed his plastic appendages to Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc. (Hasbro) who happened to produce a line of children's play kits such as doctors & nurses kits, mailman kits, and cosmetic kits. George presented the option of producing toys that were just plain fun rather than instructive. The son of one of Hassenfeld Brothers founders was taken with the simplicity and silliness of George's invention. Hassenfeld Brothers purchased the plastic pieces from the cereal company.
Potatoes were a staple of every household and they held up better than other vegetables when pierced with the sharp prongs and so the plastic components were christened Mr. Potato Head. The first kits contained almost 30 accessories; body, hands, feet, ears, mouths, eyes, noses, hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, felt pieces to shape into hairstyles, and a Styrofoam head to practice on. Right after it's initial release, order forms for even more parts were added to the kits.
Television was still in its infancy, but was rapidly becoming the preferred media to reach the masses. Hasbro used this new marketing tool to their advantage to premiere not only the first toy commercial, but the first commercial aimed solely at children. This savvy move brought Hasbro over a million sales in the first year. Some sources estimate as high as 4 million!!
Mr. Potato Head set Hasbro well on it's way to becoming one of the most loved and largest toy manufacturers in the world. Buoyed by the early success and the general optimism and post-war affluence, Hasbro introduced Mrs. Potato Head and more extravagant accessories in 1953.
The desecration of innocent potatoes ground to a halt in 1964. The government deemed the sharp prongs hazardous so Hasbro was forced to adapt to the new standards. The new and improved dull prongs made potato stabbing difficult. Hasbro created a non-perishable plastic head with ready made holes. Children accepted the change without complaint and Hasbro's sales were unaffected.
Ten years later, the government reared it's ugly head and Hasbro conformed yet again. It seems with nothing to drive into their flesh children took to sticking the small parts in their mouths and choking. And so Mr. Potato Head's noggin doubled in size to accommodate larger accessories which meant fewer parts. His arms mysteriously vanished and his complexion was darkened.
Mr. Potato Head underwent more changes to his appearance during the 1980s. His skin adopted a pleasant golden brown hue and his shape was more oval. Best of all, his arms were reinstated. He also came equipped with the revolutionary "tater tush" storage compartment to hold his accessories.
The charm of Mr. Potato Head has never worn off, but he soared to new heights after he was featured in Pixar's mega hit Toy Story. Baby boomers experience a resurgence of reminiscence for their favorite toy and a new generation embraced a vegetable without coaxing or bribes. Potato mania ensued creating a large demand for Mr. Potato Head memorabilia.
Manufacturers heeded the call with clothing, books, jewelry, bobbleheads, games, and fast food giveaways. Neiman Marcus offered Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head figures made of Swarovski crystals priced at $8000 each.
Mr. Potato Head was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. Probably the truest testament to his iconic status is his inclusion in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as a balloon. He weighed 529 pounds and towered 43 feet over 50 handlers.
Though Mr. Potato Head is a bona fide pop culture favorite in his own right, he pays homage to other beloved films, characters, and personalities such as Star Wars, KISS, Elvis Presley, Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, Star Trek, even his Toy Story co-stars have been potatofied! The newest characters to undergo the Potato Head treatment are from The Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy with Tater, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion make up the first collector's set from PPW Toys. They are scheduled to ship at the end of October and will be available in specialty outlets such as gift, toy, and collectible stores. This gift set will be followed up early next year by a Wicked Witch of the West/Winged Monkey set.
Hasbro, Pez, and Lionel have been the stuff children's dream of for generations and are cornerstones of American culture. As fans and collectors we are very fortunate The Wizard of Oz was honored by these esteemed institutions.
What's next for Mr. Potato Head? What's next for The Wizard of Oz? Mr. Potato Head recently debuted a slimmer body style and next year he'll celebrate his 60th anniversary. Excitement is already mounting for the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz in 2014. Undoubtedly, very bright futures lie ahead for both properties.
F.Y.I. - In 1968 Hasbro issued a set of Wizard of Oz Stand Up Rub Ons
Fundex and USAopoly licensed games from Hasbro. They were also granted license from Warner Brothers Consumer Products to release Wizard of Oz versions of Scrabble, Life, and Monopoly.
Promotional Partners Worldwide (PPW) is a manufacturer of licensed toys and games based in Los Angeles, CA. Specializing in co-licensed products, PPW Toys is focused on growing our toy portfolio with classic characters and brands that appeal to adults as well as children.
For more information please see www.ppwtoys.com
References and Links
The Wizard of Oz Collector's Treasury - William Stillman & Jay Scarfone
Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them
- Tim Walsh