As you’re peeling potatoes to make latkes, imagine that the decade is the 1950s, and you’re safeguarding your spuds from kids trying to stick little plastic face pieces with pushpins into them. If you’re guessing this was the precursor to the mustachioed, bulbous figure known as Mr. Potato Head, you’d be right. And who do you think was behind it but a trio of Polish Jews?
In 1952, Polish-Jewish immigrant brothers Henry, Herman and Hillel Hassenfeld saw a good future in the latest creation of Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner, a Jew of Romanian descent.
Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro, and now the world’s third largest toy company) sold the first Mr. Potato Head as a kit of facial parts. It came with a Styrofoam head and instructions that suggested using real vegetables and fruits instead. After parents complained about rotting vegetables and new government safety regulations restricted toys with sharp pieces, Hasbro began selling the plastic potato body in 1964.
Mr. Potato Head was the first toy to be advertised on television, and it sold more than a million units in its first year. The next year Mrs. Potato Head was introduced, followed by Brother Spud and Sister Yam, along with cars, trailers and other accessories.
Mr. Potato Head has become an American cultural staple. And it all started with vegetables in a Brooklyn kitchen.