The Life and Times of Mr. Potato Head

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We’ve talked about Mr. Potato Head before on the site, but let’s dig a bit deeper today and get at the root of what has made the ol’ tater such an enduring toy for generations.

When you stop and think about it, the truth is that Mr. Potato Head is actually a dress-up doll, one that can be enjoyed equally by both boys and girls without the binaries of ‘this is what a girl should play with’ or ‘this is appropriate for boys’. The gender labeling of the toys themselves are even a curious misnomer.

Although Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head exist as separate models, Hasbro’s own product catalogue labels several accessory packs that would be stereotypically considered “female”, such as the Parts and Pieces Glamour Spud, the Mermaid Spud, and the Parts and Pieces Princess set, as being suitable for your Mr. Potato Head. Maybe Mr. Potato Head enjoys dress-up a little too much?

Mr. Potato Head’s feminine side. Shown are Glamour Spud and Parts and Pieces Princess Spud.

Jokes aside, the ungendered quality of today’s tater is actually a result of years of product evolution and changing safety regulations.

The original Mr. Potato Head kit actually was gendered, because the 1952 kit consisted of a plastic body with a huge spike for a neck that would be attached to the fruit. You would push a potato or apple or whathadyou onto the spike, creating the figure’s base, and then poke the eyes, nose, mouth and ears into the fruit to complete the toy. When Mrs. Potato Head’s kit came out in 1953 she actually had a different body mold, with a rounder figure, feminine shoes and a dress. They were the toy celebrity couple before Barbie and Ken, who didn’t reach the market until 1959 and 1961 respectively – Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head were even featured in LIFE magazine!

Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, circa 1953 – note distinct gender molds for the bodies.

Naturally, as the years went on, a toy with a 3-inch spike on it became unkosher to give to little kids. In 1964 the equation was swapped around – both due to government regulations and possibly as a response to criticisms of ‘food wastage’ – a brown plastic ‘potato head’ was made by Hasbro. All the points of the pieces were rounded off, but the two distinct Mr. and Mrs. bodies retained slightly smaller pointy necks.

In the 1960’s, the first commercial tie-in packs appeared: Donald Duck, Bozo the Clown and a special Mr. Donut Head cross-promotion with Dunkin Donuts. Of course, the parts for each of these were all interchangeable. Primary accessories from the 60’s were Wild West, Masquerade, Circus, On The Farm, On the Railroad and On The Moon. Each came with a cardboard backdrop and a variety of strange pieces, some of which were repeated between sets. Some were intended for use with real vegetables rather than the plastic potato head, reflecting the crossover between versions.

From this era, the Picnic Pals are a quite obscure spinoff line, not well known today and difficult to locate.

Picnic Pals circa 1966.

In the 1970’s, the line began to diminish. The plastic potato head was darkened by several shades, and at this point the original body attachment disappeared entirely, replaced by just two simple plastic feet. Additionally the holes on the potato head became standardized to slots. Mrs. Potato Head disappeared from the line in 1973, no longer having a separate form of her own – she was only an add-on pack. She would not return as a separately labeled item until 1992.

Only a handful of kits – the Fire Chief, Sheriff and Lady packages – worked with the 70’s model potato. The strangest and rarest of all Mr. Potato Head accessory packs also hail from this era – the Fish, Bug and Bird sets. These sets include wobbly legs, wings, antennae and psychedelic-style beaks.

Literally the only available picture online of the Mr. Potato Fish, Bird and Bug sets.

The tater we know today took shape over the 80’s. The plastic body was retooled again, first to have attached arms and later detachable arms that could bend. A trap door backside was added to let kids store unused pieces inside the potato. It retained a slot for feet, and the slots on the body had been returned to peg-holes. The potato was now the entirety of the toy rather than one component. Kids were once more free to stick arms in ears and eyes in mouths. Finally, the signature pipe of the figure that had been a staple of the line since its beginning was swapped out for a pair of running shoes in support of the American Cancer Society’s “Great American Smoke Out”. (He also received a Presidential Sports Award in 1992!)

Accessory packs from the 80’s were somewhat thin on the ground except for the Bucket of Parts released in 1987 and the Super Silly Mr. Potato Head bucket in 1989 which featured muscle arms and crazy hair in extremely bright colors.

The release of Toy Story in the 90’s provided an explosion of attention for the tater. With Don Rickels providing the voice of the cynical spud in the box office smash, Pixar’s inclusion of the toy sent Mr. Potato Head skyrocketing in popularity, and a massive amount of new accessory kits and packs emerged. Some significant packs from this time were the Sheriff, Tool Belt, “Prima Spuderina” (ballerina), Pirate, Santa and “Cottontail” (rabbit, with a pull-on pink suit with ears!).

A clever variant of the figure from 1992 was the Soft Stuff Potato Head, which was a plush toy with Velcro-backed parts. Even more than the peg-version, these parts could be attached to literally any point of the soft body. Meanwhile, it’s possible that the re-release of Mrs. Potato Head as a separate character in 1992 was done in response to and preparation for the 1999 release of Toy Story 2, where the character was prominently featured.

As of 2011, there are over 100 separate team-specific versions of Mr. Potato Head, representing collegiate and pro teams. In this last decade the line has seen a tsunami of cross-merchandising- a real boom for collectors. There’ve been Star Wars spuds, Indiana Jones spuds, Transformers spuds, Spider-Man spuds, Elvis and KISS spuds… and in late 2011 there are plans to release Star Trek spuds too! Some special and cool new variants have emerged, like the “Silly Suitcases” for each model with over 40 mix and match accessories and body parts. There are even pets- the Spud Buds– a dog and cat.

Art from PPW Toys depicting planned Star Trek Mr. Potato Head licensed toys for late 2011.

Underneath all the ears, noses and funky plastic eyes, the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head bodies are now the same simple plastic shape with slight color variations. There once was a meaningful difference between the two, but that’s no longer true. Kits that work for one also work for the other. Moms and dads concerned about gender stereotyping in their toys might like a Potato Head as an inoffensive alternative to the Barbie/Hot Wheels dichotomy. Boys and girls get exactly the same experience with the toy. The kits are ridiculously low priced- as low as $4 for some accessory packs and around $20 for a Silly Suitcase with full figure included. At these prices, and with a huge variety of dressing options to boot, everyone can and should have a spud of their very own!

Cassandra, when not writing about media and randomness at her blog, cassandrapoe.com, prefers her nongendered potatoes dressed with butter and garlic.

Want more on the classics? Check these articles out:

The History of Rainbow Brite

Drench With Power: A Super Soaker Retrospective

Throw Your Hands Up and Your Hands Back: A PEZ Retrospective

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