Mr. Potato Head

by Lauren Kessler

Hello. My name is Lauren, and I am a solanum tuberosumophile.

Yes, that’s right: A lover of potatoes.

If you a regular reader of Farmer-ish, you have encountered my potato-ish essays before. I first wrote about my upbringing in the potato fields of Long Island, followed by my chronicling of the (yes, fascinating, I promise you!) history of the potato, and then my “death by potato” narrative explaining how this wonderfully healthy vegetable got to be the unhealthy and hugely popular snack food it is. 

Is it possible that I have something more to say about the spud? Well, yes, I do.

But first, to refresh your memory and reignite your interest in the tuber:

Potatoes are the No. 1 vegetable crop in the United States and the third most important crop in the world in terms of food consumption. Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries depend on potatoes for their survival. More than 156 countries produce potatoes, and more than a billion people worldwide eat them on a regular basis. 

That’s because the potato is extraordinarily adaptable to challenging climates and differing soil conditions. It grows in poor soil, thin air, radical temperature changes, killing frosts, and severe droughts. It grows in the tropics. It grows in the highlands of southern Asia. And, of course, it grows in Idaho, the top potato-producing state in the U.S. And it grows—both wanted and unwanted, planted and entirely volunteered—in my backyard farm.

I never thought I’d grow potatoes. I mean, why? They are so cheap at the store–giant, hulking bags of them for less than a pound of tomatoes. But here’s the thing: Commercially grown potatoes make every “Dirty Dozen” list. They are treated with pesticide, insecticide, and fungicide. The above-ground spraying permeates the soil and is easily absorbed by the potato’s soft skin.

Why all this spraying? 

Rot, spot, wilt, scab, and mildew. Cankers and lesions. Beetles, moths, aphids, thrips, leafhoppers, and worms. Mold, cysts, viruses, and nematodes. Elephant hide, jelly end rot, shatter bruise. White mold, pink rot, black leg, hollow heart, pythium leak, seed piece decay. And of course: tuber late blight, the scourge that caused the Irish potato famine of 1840. (That and England’s long-standing political hegemony over Ireland.) 

All these pests and diseases mean potatoes crops are inundated with chemical treatments. According to an Environmental Working Group analysis of USDA and FDA pesticide residue tests, 84 percent of the more than 2,000 potato samples tested contained detectable traces of at least one pesticide. A total of 36 unique pesticides were detected on the sample potatoes–although no individual sample contained more than 6 unique pesticide traces (if that is a comfort). The pesticide residue was low, but it was highest among fifty vegetables analyzed. 

So GROW YOUR OWN is the lesson here.

And while you are winter-dreaming of the exotics you can soon plant in your own garden—Peruvian Purples, Russian Bananas, Ruby Crescents—let me tell you a story that will make you love potatoes even more than you already do.

It’s the tale of Mr. Potato Head. You know. The toy. 

It was the early 1940s creation of Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner who, as a child, would take potatoes from his mother’s garden and using various other fruits and vegetables as facial features, make dolls for his younger sisters. Imagine, if you will, a grape-eyed, carrot-nosed, potato-headed doll. The idea evolved from random garden veggies to little plastic parts. 

Lerner tried to sell the toy for several years and then finally convinced a food company to distribute the plastic parts as premiums in breakfast cereal boxes. Two brothers, Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld, owners of a small school supply and toy business called Hassenfeld Brothers (later changed to Hasbro), saw the toy, realized its uniqueness, paid the cereal company $2,000 to stop production, and bought the rights for $5,000. Lerner was offered an advance of $500 and a small royalty on every kit sold. The toy, christened as Mr. Potato Head, went into mass production in 1952 (on sale in stores for 98 cents). The original set included plastic hands, feet, ears, mouths, eyes, four noses, hats, eyeglasses, and a pipe. 

In case you feel sorry for Mr. Lerner and the deal he struck, more than one million kits were sold in the first year. You do the math.

Mr. Potato Head became the first toy advertised on television. (For context: There were then about 100 TV stations broadcasting in the entire country.) The ad campaign was also the first to be aimed directly at children. Prior to this all advertising, such as it was, was directed at adults. Oh those innocent times, right? The following year Mrs. Potato Head was added, soon to be followed by Brother Spud and Sister Yam. The spud family, given the new affluence of post-war America, now required “accessories”–a car, a boat trailer, a stroller, and pets marketed as Spud-ettes—so those became add-ons.

The toy was originally sold as separate plastic parts to be attached to a real potato or other vegetable, but this proved surprisingly controversial. World War II food rationing was a recent memory, and the use of fruits and vegetables to make toys was considered irresponsible and wasteful. Also, new federal protective legislationmandated that the Potato Head parts be less sharp (children were injuring themselves), which meant it was very difficult to actually puncture a potato. Thus, by the early 60s, Mr. Potato Head included a plastic potato with pre-drilled holes to insert the parts. 

If you are still reading, here’s some more (to me) fascinating trivia: Hasbro followed the success of Mr. PH by introducing Oscar the Orange and Pete the Pepper. Then there was Katie the Carrot and Cooky the Cucumber. Never heard of them? Me either. Hasbro also made a fast food-based line which included Mr. Soda Pop Head and Frankie Frank. Shame on them. 

The company continued to tinker with the toy. In 1975, in response to additional child safety regulations, Hasbro doubled the size of the main potato part of the toy as well as its accessories. Big commercial benefits ensued as the size change increased the market to younger children, who were able to play and attach the facial pieces easily. 

What else? In 1985, Mr. Potato Head received four write-in votes for mayor of Boise, Idaho, which was duly reported as the “most votes for Mr. Potato Head in a political campaign” in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In 1987, Mr. Potato Head became “Spokespud” for the annual Great American Smokeout and surrendered his pipe (remember that was one of the plastic parts) to then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

And, of course, in 1995, Mr. Potato head was featured in a leading role in the Disney/Pixar animated feature “Toy Story,” reprising the role in the 1999, 2010 and 2019 sequels. (The comedian Don Rickles was the voice.) 

And finally, last year the company announced that it would drop the “Mr.” from the brand logo to “promote gender equality and inclusion.” Which really was never an issue if you used a REAL potato.

You now know way way more than you 1) need to know 2) wanted to know about this toy and this tuber. 

You’re welcome.

photo credit: Lauren Kessler

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