Dr. Seuss has not been totally canceled, but six of his books have been shelved because they are said to portray some people in hurtful ways. These six books are no longer available on eBay. Given that there are groups of people who have been hurt and therefore harmed, the shelving of these books is understandable. But it is important to note that eBay continues to offer Hitler’s Mein Kampf, several books written by the lunatic and rabid anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, and several books with instructions on how to create a bomb. One can only guess how many people have been hurt and harmed by those books. If Seuss must go but Hitler and Farrakhan can stay, the problem seems to be not with six Dr. Seuss books but with eBay.
The list of what is being banned grows longer with each passing day. Undoubtedly, children will learn, even without reading these six books, but for many adults, little bits and pieces of our past are being erased. Losing Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head is making us sad. It is particularly sad and has special meaning for me because Hasbro Industries is in my blood—literally and figuratively.
Originally, Hasbro was the epitome of a family-owned-and-operated business. My great-uncle, Henry Hassenfeld, along with one of his brothers, was the founder of the company. My father, Willie Reich, was the foreman of the sewing department, his brother Bernard was the foreman of the shipping department, my uncle Josif Kapp, was the foreman of the returns department, and my uncle Charlie Oelbaum was the company treasurer. Mom’s cousin Henoch Oelbaum was the purchasing agent, and another cousin, Rudy Freudenberger, was production control manager. There were very few family members who did not work there; Uncle Henry saw to it that everyone was employed. Even I worked there as an office assistant one summer, when I was a teenager. It is doubtful that anyone in the office needed my assistance, but my mother needed to get me out of her hair (as she would have said), and if you were family, you got a job!
After several years, the name Hassenfeld Brothers was shortened and the firm was forever after known as Hasbro. The company made news in 1984 when it bought out Milton Bradley. Several years later it made news again when Parker Brothers was absorbed in Hasbro, and from that point on, Hasbro owned the world-famous board game that we all know as Monopoly.
When we were children, my sister and I, along with many of our cousins, owned every toy that was ever produced by the company. Looking back on it, with all the giveaways (possibly they were takeaways), it is a wonder that the company made enough of a profit to stay in business! Like most children, I had my favorites and one of them was the now-infamous Mr. Potato Head.
Originally, when a child wanted to play the Mr. Potato Head game, he would ask his mother for a potato and then apply the features. The features were multiple sets of eyes, ears, noses, and mouths, all made of plastic, and we would create different-looking characters by sticking those pieces into the potato. In addition to body parts, there was a mustache for the mister and big red lips for the missus, along with fashion accessories such as shoes, hats, and handbags. In time, there was a major game change when a large plastic potato was included in the box. This meant that moms did not have to waste any potatoes. It also meant that when children reopened the Mr. Potato Head box after not playing with it for several weeks, there was no shriveled and smelly potato to contend with. It was a win-win situation for everybody.
Fast-forward to the craziness of today, with the call for only gender-neutral pronouns to be used by and for everyone. Understandably, there are people who do not wish to be gender identified. They want words that do not specify that the subject of a sentence is male or female. That is fair. What is not fair, and what does reach the level of craziness, is trying to prevent everyone from being gender identified, since most people have no objection to being referred to as “he” or “she.” But it is the height of lunacy to attack a vegetable such as Mr. Potato Head since it is unlikely that he, being a spud, would have any objection to being gender identified. The only thing a potato might object to is being mistaken for a turnip.
Removing the word “mister” from an inanimate object gives new meaning to the word “meshugas.” But there are people in our society who do not want there to be a “Mr.” or a “Mrs.” for anyone or anything, and this apparently includes that famous vegetable. Hasbro has announced that from now on the toy will be called simply “Potato Head.”
I was unhappy to learn that the company capitulated and changed the name of this much-loved toy. But upon further reflection, I realized that it was probably not so much a capitulation as it was a business decision, since it is likely that the people who currently run the company are every bit as wise as those members of my family who ran it earlier. Perhaps the packaging without the words Mr. or Mrs. on it will be less costly. Whatever the case, the name has been changed and is now simply Potato Head.
Many years have passed since the inception of the Hassenfeld Brothers company, and the aforementioned family members are no longer living. I do not know the people who are currently running the company that my great-uncle Henry founded in 1935 when he started it as the Empire Pencil company and slowly added a pencil box with an eraser and a ruler inside. Year by year, toys were added and by 1942, Hassenfeld Brothers had shifted to become primarily a toy company with Empire Pencil as a subsidiary.
For many people, the adorable toy that we played with so many years ago will remain in our minds as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. Removing the Mr. and Mrs. is a meaningless pursuit, as there are some things in life that cannot be taken away, and memories are one of those things. That’s the way it should be.
This piece is a combination of disgust for some of the books that remain on eBay and also a brief trip down memory lane. That’s the way it is!
Hannah Berman lives in Woodmere and gives private small-group lessons in mah-jongg and canasta. She can be reached at Savtahannah@aol.com or 516-295-4435. Read more of Hannah Berman’s articles on 5TJT.com.