While Christmas is a time of year that still brings some degree of excitement for me, each year as the day approaches my thoughts often drift back to my childhood.
Surely, the dear Sisters of Charity did a nice job of impressing upon us the religious ramifications of such a day, but of course, my pals and I couldnít help but talk about the toys we anticipated under the tree on Christmas morning, especially as the days to vacation grew short and we munched the delightful contents of our sack lunches in the St. Charles cafeteria.
Certainly, we knew there would be clothes under the tree as well, but those were to be tolerated until we got to the good stuff, the toys. It was the adults, whose haul each year mostly consisted of clothes, that we pitied.
As Christmas peeks its head around the very next corner, I think even more about those toys of my youth. While many are still available today, they certainly arenít the forces they once were, shoved aside by all the electronic state-of-the-art toys that have inundated the market for the last couple of decades.
So, I thought since the good folks at The Lima News have graciously invited me to be their weekly guest so that I can look with you at this wonderful life we are so fortunate to share, Iíd like to start my own holiday journalistic tradition by giving you a bit of history about a toy of yesteryear, especially during that special time of year when there was the aroma of fresh pine permeating our living room in the small ranch where I grew up in the 1500 block of Latham Avenue.
Letís leave toys like Precision Gyroscopes, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Bop Bags and the magical vibratory delights of Tudor Electric Football for later. This year, now that Iím in my late 50s, Iíd like to focus on something I found under the tree during my first Fabulous Fifties.
Mr. Potato Head was invented by George Lerner, who began experimenting during World War II with sets of plastic face pieces that could be pushed into fruits and vegetables to make them, I guess, more attractive. Who knows? Perhaps Lerner was thinking, well, if children arenít particularly crazy about eating them, maybe theyíll have more fun playing with them and theyíll get around to that eating part later.
However, the World War II years were marked by a rather conservation-minded approach throughout the country, and parents certainly werenít going to be wasting a piece of food so Junior could amuse himself.
Losing heart with the apparent lack of interest, Lerner sold the toy concept to a cereal company for $5,000 so that the pieces could be given away in cereal boxes. Not long after, a feeling of sellerís remorse set in, and Lerner bought the rights to the toy back for $7,000. Some businessman, huh?
But, of course, thatís not the end of the story.
In 1952, the inventor finally got a reputable toy company, Hasbro Inc., based in Pawtucket, R.I., to partner with him. The toy began to fly off the shelves, especially after it became the first toy ever advertised on television. The early version still only had face parts, so parents had to give up a real potato, something easier to do now that WWII was in the rearview mirror and people were beginning to live large.
Some years later, a hard plastic face-body was included, which is the version I got from Santa. Certainly, the miscreant that I was could never have been trusted with a real potato that could break apart when I pushed in the eyes and ears, with bits of the russet winding up smashed into the carpet. My mom didnít need to be all that clairvoyant to see that sliver of the future.
The toy line grew quickly, and in 1953, perhaps Mr. PH himself insisted there be a Mrs. Potato Head, and, of course, after a spudly spawning, along came Baby Potato Head!
The family, no doubt with Idaho roots, enjoyed a remarkable run of success for well more than three decades after Hasbroís introduction of the toy, even eventually grabbing a portion of the electric handheld and video-game markets by the 1980s.
In 1987, Mr. Potato Head relinquished his signature trademark pipe to U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who named Mr. PH the spokesman for the Great American Smokeout for the next several years.
In 1992, another group recognized the potential for potato power and came a calling. The Presidentís Council on Youth Fitness gave Mr. PH an award when he decided to no longer be, you guessed it, a couch potato!
In 1996, Mr. Potato Head even threw his considerable starchy support to the League of Women Voters in a campaign to get out the vote.
By Y2K time, the mania for the toy had subsided considerably, but, in a remarkable run, certainly it more than exceeded inventor George Lernerís expectations, and it remains one of Americaís most enduring symbols of childhood expression and creativity.
During my ďI Like IkeĒ early childhood, I couldnít have predicted as the years progressed, because of circumstances beyond my control in the regions above my ears, that I would come to resemble the toy more than I ever would have wanted (see picture), but thatís OK. As has been said, everyone out there, somewhere, has a universal double, and not everyoneís happens to be an American icon like mine!