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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

A $2,000 loss helped launch new toy for kids

By Paul Niemann

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[December 04, 2008]  You probably grew up with the toy that George Lerner invented, yet you probably never heard of George Lerner. Until now.

George was born in New York City in 1922. He invented the toy in 1952 by using pieces of various vegetables as the parts. This didn't always sit well with parents who preach to their kids that they shouldn't play with their food.

He became a household name. Not George, but rather his toy invention.

Our hero even enjoyed a TV and movie career. Again, not George, but rather his toy invention.

George first launched his invention when he sold the rights to it for $5,000 to a cereal company. Or is it spelled "serial"? Potato, potatoe. Either way, he had a hunch that his toy invention could do more than just serve as a premium when parents bought a box of cereal.

So George bought back the rights for $7,000 and incurred a $2,000 short-term loss in the process.

George's invention was the first toy to be advertised on TV. This lovable little character even received a few write-in votes for mayor in the 1985 election in Boise, Idaho. Once again, not George, but rather his toy invention.


George sold the rights of his toy to Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld. The Hassenfeld brothers' company is known as Hasbro for short, and they manufacture and market the toy product.

To recap, here are the clues:

  • George made the toy by using pieces of various vegetables.

  • "Potato, potatoe."

  • The toy received a few write-in votes in the 1985 mayoral race in Boise, Idaho (which is in the heart of potato country).

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We're talking about Mr. Potato Head, the toy vegetable that is loved by kids all over the world.

Mr. Potato Head's popularity has made him the ideal spokesman -- or "spokespud" -- for many causes, and he's received many awards and honors, including:

  • He was the spokesman for the American Cancer Society's annual "Great American Smokeout" for several years, beginning in 1987. When the surgeon general asked that Mr. Potato Head give up smoking his pipe, Mr. Potato Head gave him his last pipe.

  • Mr. Potato Head received an award from the President's Council on Physical Fitness on the White House lawn in 1992.

  • In 2000, the Chicago Cubs had a "Mr. Potato Head Day" at Wrigley Field, and Mr. Potato Head also threw out the first pitch.

  • Also in 2000, Mr. Potato Head was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

  • One day in 2002, Mr. Potato Head rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange.

In the process, he created an American icon. It wasn't Mr. Potato Head who created the icon, but rather his inventor, George Lerner.


Paul Niemann's column is syndicated to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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