Collector: Jeff Pettit, Associate Director, Office of Consultation and Research in Medical Education, Carver College of Medicine; Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine
Collection Name: Me and My Spuds
"I began collecting the unusual Mr. Potato Heads in 2007. My son and I attended a music camp, during which they held a silent auction. It was the first time I saw Darth Tater and placed a bid. A 12-year-old girl thought it would be a great gift for her dad, so we got into a one-penny bidding contest. Ultimately, she upped the bid one penny just as time expired and won the prize. I became curious to see if there were other interesting Potato Heads. I discovered there were many more on the market, purchased a few, and began to investigate the history of Mr. Potato Head. When one of the popular movies is released, like Transformers or a Marvel movie, they tend to sell a Potato Head related to one of the main characters—Optimash Prime, Bubble Spud, or Spider Spud. I buy one and keep it in the original packaging.
My collection has grown to 75, with many more still available. It has become an easy birthday and Christmas gift from my children. My wife tells me that the collection is my retirement funding! I keep all of them housed in my office, so that we can have many conversations. They are great listeners but don’t offer many suggestions. The most interesting set of Potato Heads is the collection of 8 from the original Star Wars movies. They were originally only available at Disneyworld but can now be found online. When you press the hat of the Taters of the Lost Ark Potato Head, it plays the movie theme song. I have a talking Potato Head with the voice of Don Rickles. My newest collection is based on horror movie characters (Predator, Freddy Kruger). Someday, I hope there will be a Hawkeye Potato Head, similar to many other colleges and universities."
Featured collection items:
A Timeline History of Mr. Potato Head by Jeff Pettit
Mr. Potato Head was invented and developed by George Lerner. George Lerner would often take potatoes from his mother’s garden and, using various fruits and vegetables as facial features, he would make dolls for his younger sisters to play with. When Lerner first approached toy companies with his idea, it was quickly rejected. With the war and food rationing a recent memory, it was considered irresponsible and wasteful to use fruits and vegetables to make toys. Lerner finally sold his idea for $5,000 to a food company, to be used as premiums in cereal boxes of Frosted Flakes.
Lerner approached textile manufacturers Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld with his idea. The Hassenfelds conducted a small school supply and toy business called Hassenfeld Brothers (later known as Hasbro), in Rhode Island. Realizing the toy was quite unique and unlike anything they were currently supplying, Hassenfeld Brothers paid the cereal company $2,000 to stop production and bought the rights for $5,000. Lerner’s idea was then dubbed “Mr. Potato Head” and started production. Lerner received $500 in advance and 5 percent royalties for every set sold.
Mr. Potato Head was “born” on May 1, 1952. The original toy cost $0.98. The kit contained hands, feet, ears, two mouths, two pairs of eyes, four noses, three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight felt pieces resembling facial hair. The original Mr. Potato Head did not include a potato “body,” consumers provided their own potatoes to stick the various pieces into. Kids whose parents would rather not have them stab the family's starches could "practice" making faces on an included bit of styrofoam. Shortly after the Mr. Potato Head release, the kits grew in size to include an additional 50 pieces.
Mr. Potato Head became the first toy advertised on television. This was the first commercial to be aimed directly at children. Before this, commercials only targeted adults. This commercial revolutionized marketing and caused an industrial boom. Over one million kits were sold in the first year. Mr. Potato Head was also advertised in Life magazine in 1954.
Mr. Potato Head grew and had a family that included Mrs. Potato Head, son Spud and daughter Yam. The children's friends, Kate the Carrot, Pete the Pepper, Oscar the Orange, and Cookie Cucumber soon joined the family. Extra accessories were created for the Potato Head Family: a car, boat trailer, kitchen set, stroller, and pets call Spud-ettes.
Complaints were made regarding rotting vegetables and sharp plastic ends. 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. With new government safety regulations, the company was forced to include a plastic potato “body” to be used in its kits to replace fruits and vegetables.
New toy child safety regulations were introduced by the US Government. Because of this, the main part of Mr. Potato Head and its accessories doubled in size. Because of the change in size and the removal of choking hazards, the market to sell to younger children increased.
Hasbro reduced the range of accessories for Mr. Potato Head to one set of parts. Mr. Potato Head gained another cool accessory in the early 1980s, when a trapdoor was added to his backside, so the spud’s owners could store his many facial accessories inside his plastic body.
Mr. Potato Head received four postal votes in the run for mayor of Boise, Idaho, in the “most votes for Mr. Potato Head in a political campaign,” as verified by Guinness World Records.
Mr. Potato Head became “Spokespud” for the annual Great American Smokeout and surrendered his pipe to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in Washington, DC. 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 made his debut in Hollywood with a leading role in the Disney/Pixar animated feature Toy Story (and sequels), alongside Mrs. Potato Head. After being featured in some of Pixar's best movies, Mr. Potato Head was honored with his own float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from 2005 to 2007, to promote exercise and a healthy diet.
Mr. Potato Head was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong in Rochester, NY.
Hasbro also began selling sets of pieces without bodies for customers to add to their collections. Some of these themed sets included Mermaid, Rockstar, Pirate, King, Princess, Firefighter, Construction Worker, Halloween, Santa Claus, Chef, and Police Officer. In the same year, Hasbro introduced a line called “Sports Spuds” with a generic plastic potato (smaller than the standard size), customized to a wide variety of professional and collegiate teams. In recent years, Hasbro has produced Potato Head sets based on media properties, which Hasbro produces toys for under license.
Mr. Potato Head has been used to create “themed” characters. Such as Darth Tater, Spud Trooper, R2-POTATOO, Luke Fry Walker, Optimash Prime, Spider Spud, Peter Tater, Tony Starch, and many more.
Mr. Potato Head also has been featured in multiple video games, including Hasbro Family Game Night 1, 2, 3, and several Toy Story-based video games, along with Toy Story Activity Center.
Hasbro announced that it would drop the “Mr.” from the brand’s name, in order to be more inclusive and so all could feel “welcome in the Potato Head world.” It also said it would sell a new playset this fall, without the Mr. and Mrs. Designations, which will let kids create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads. 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.
Want a better look? Guests can view Jeff's collection on the First Floor of Macbride Hall, just south of Iowa Hall, starting September 22, 2021 through mid-March, 2022.