I was walking through the museum recently and passed the table of Mr. Potato Head toys, an area that has always been popular with guests. It was then that I unexpectedly heard a young child exclaim, “Mr. Tomato Head!” At first, I couldn’t stop laughing. I’m not sure if it’s my strange sense of humor, the idea of a dollar store knock-off called “Mr. Tomato Head,” or the image that formed of a family of vegetables with faces à la Veggie Tales, but I couldn’t get over the idea.
Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000, Mr. Potato Head checks off all of the hall of fame criteria: icon-status, longevity, discovery, and innovation. He was invented by George Lerner in 1949, and the original product was designed to be used on potatoes and other vegetables, consisting of a variety of facial features and accessories to press into the veggie. With parents expressing displeasure with the rotting vegetables their kids were leaving around, eventually the plastic potato body would be supplied alongside the accessories. Mr. Potato Head’s advertising campaign also broke new ground with television commercials targeting children, not just adults.
Mr. Potato Head has become an icon over his 70+ years of existence. His feature role in four Toy Story films took the popular toy and gave him life and voice via Don Rickles, turning a childhood playmate into a movie star. One of the first things most kids enthuse about as they enter The Strong’s G. Rollie Adams Atrium is the giant Mr. Potato Head above them. I’ve observed many stopping to stare or getting their adult’s attention to point out the large spud. He’s certainly become an intergenerational celebrity.
Little did our earlier young guest know, but he wasn’t so far off in his mistaken name for our potato friend, as the Mr. Potato Head franchise wasn’t always just potatoes. The early kits were marketed to be used on a variety of produce, empowering children to create a family as diverse as their garden or pantry. Once the plastic bodies were in use, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and their family were joined by friends like Pete the Pepper, Oscar the Orange, Katie the Carrot, and Kooky/Cooky the Cucumber. A picnic-themed playset also included friends like Willy Burger, Mr. Ketchup Head, Frenchy Fry, Mr. Soda Pop Head, Frankie Frank, and Mr. Mustard Head, ready to be customized with a variety of accessories.
These non-potato friends are no longer in production, but a variety of spud variations are, often featuring licenses like Star Wars and Marvel. You too can own The Yamdalorian and the Tot. While we may have to stick to Veggie Tales for Bob the Tomato or Larry the Cucumber, Mr. Potato Head and family aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. His place in American culture is solidified, and in fact he’s taken on a new pedestal at The Strong. With the opening of the Hasbro Game Park, he is now featured prominently among other Hasbro licenses in the title wall for a garden exhibit area that evokes nostalgia and play for guests.
And who knows, maybe Pete the Pepper will make a resurgence someday alongside a new Mr. Tomato Head.