In 1923, brothers and Polish immigrants Henry and Hillel Hassenfeld founded Hassenfeld Bros. Inc., a company based in Rhode Island that sold textile and fabric remnants. It was an auspicious start for a company that would become a brand name in fun: The name was later truncated to Hasbro, and their toys—Mr. Potato Head, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Transformers, and dozens of others—grew to populate millions of toy chests all over the world.
With the company celebrating 100 years in business, take a look at some of the more intriguing footnotes in Hasbro history, including a brush with the Food and Drug Administration and their curious connection to Death Row Records.
1. Hasbro originally made school supplies.
The Hassenfeld brothers didn’t have any aspirations in the toy business when they started what would become Hasbro. In 1923, the company was devoted to selling or repurposing textile remnants, fabric swatches which they later applied to things like pencil boxes and other school supplies. It was Henry Hassenfeld’s son, Merrill, who saw potential to get into playthings: His reasoning was that Hasbro needed product outside of school shopping season. In the 1930s and 1940s, Merrill pursued dress-up and accessory kits with doctor, nurse, and even air raid warden themes. By 1952, when Hasbro released the malleable spud Mr. Potato Head from inventor George Lerner, it was clear Hasbro’s future was in toys, not classrooms.
2. Hasbro’s Flubber gave kids rashes.
Plastic helped revolutionize the toy industry, but it wasn’t always a benefit. While Hasbro avoided food waste and spoilage by moving from actual potatoes to plastic tubers for Mr. Potato Head, they had trouble with Flubber. The gooey polymer substance was introduced in 1963 and was meant to woo fans of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel Son of Flubber (1963), Disney films about the inventor of a slime with amazing properties.
The store-bought Flubber had only one astonishing ability: It caused rashes in some kids who played with it. Following consumer complaints, the Food and Drug Administration identified roughly 1600 cases of mild skin irritation. Merrill Hassenfeld objected to the controversy, saying Hasbro had tested the material and found it safe. Nonetheless, it was removed from store shelves.
3. Hasbro popularized the phrase action figure.
In order to market the 1964 debut of their fearless fighting team G.I. Joe, Hasbro had to find a way to appeal to boys whom they imagined might be fretful over the concept of going to war with “dolls.” Instead, Hasbro creative director Don Levine suggested that the Joes be called “action figures.”
Levine was not exactly the innovator of the term, which had appeared in newspaper advertisements for a western-themed toy set as early as 1951. But Hasbro certainly popularized it. G.I. Joe debuted in 1964 and was a massive success, and the phrase action figure has since become synonymous with steroidal adventurers in toy aisles from He-Man to Star Wars.
4. Hasbro sold cookware.
Although their only affiliation with cooking amounted to selling the Easy-Bake Oven, the company offered a line of cookware—pots, pans, and utensils—endorsed by popular television chef Graham Kerr of The Galloping Gourmet in the early 1970s. The line fizzled. Coupled with an aggressive management style that bogged down new product ideas in corporate red tape, the company’s fortunes declined. In the late 1970s, rival toy companies even referred to it as “Hasbeen.” (A newly revived G.I. Joe line and the acquisition of board game giant Milton Bradley helped reverse course.)
5. Hasbro opened several day care centers.
During Hasbro’s lull in the 1970s, the company also made an ill-advised entry into the child care business: The company acquired the popular preschool series Romper Room and began franchising Romper Room-themed daycare and nursery school centers. The idea was to capitalize on what was expected to be a booming demand for child care that decade. Unfortunately, that didn’t materialize, and the day care franchisees sputtered out. Or, as one newspaper put it, “Expected Romper Room Boom Fails.”
6. Hasbro went to war with Barbie.
Long considered the two behemoths of the toy industry, Hasbro and Mattel have been rivals for decades. (And sometimes, the subject of a long-rumored merger.) Particularly vexing to Hasbro was Mattel’s domination of the doll business thanks to Barbie, which held roughly 90 percent of the fashion doll market share. In the 1980s, Hasbro twice tried to challenge Mattel doll to doll, first with 1986’s Jem and the Holograms line and an accompanying cartoon series. The rocker sold well—roughly 5 million were purchased—but quickly fell off, which one Hasbro executive attributed to Jem’s towering frame. At 1 inch taller than Barbie, kids couldn’t have them swap clothes.
A second attempt, 1988’s Maxie, was more closely aligned with Barbie’s California vibes as well as her stature. She, too, fell by the wayside, as did Sindy, a UK import that drew legal ire from Mattel over her alleged resemblance to Barbie.
7. Hasbro made a Teddy Roosevelt toy.
In the 1990s, Hasbro expanded its G.I. Joe line to include a number of collectible figures based on real people, including George Washington and Buzz Aldrin. (The sculpts were sized at 12 inches as an homage to the original Joe proportions.) Few, however, were as notable as the Joe of 26th President Theodore Roosevelt, who came dressed in his Rough Riders ensemble.
8. Hasbro had a controversy involving a penis cake.
In 2014, Hasbro drew some unwelcome social media attention when consumers noticed a Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset had an unusual extruder. The tool, which was meant to reshape Play-Doh in order to decorate the cake, looked to some like a penis. The realization led to headlines like “Whoops, Play-Doh Toy Looks Exactly Like a Penis” and “Play-Doh to Replace Regrettably Shaped Toy.”
“We have heard some consumer feedback about the extruder tool in the Play-Doh Cake Mountain playset and are in the process of updating all future Play-Doh products with a different tool,” Hasbro said in a carefully worded statement. They also offered to exchange the device.
9. Hasbro once owned Death Row Records.
Hasbro has a truly diversified portfolio. In addition to My Little Pony, the company once owned Death Row Records, the rap label co-founded by Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, Dick Griffey, and the D.O.C. The acquisition was part of Hasbro’s 2019 purchase of eOne, an entertainment conglomerate, for $4 billion. (Hasbro wasn't necessarily thinking of dominating the rap genre: In addition to Death Row, eOne had kid-friendly properties like Peppa Pig.) Hasbro eventually sold off eOne Music to investment company Blackstone in 2021, which in turn sold it to Snoop Dogg in 2022.
10. Hasbro trademarked that Play-Doh smell.
Popping open a can of Play-Doh triggers a sense memory—one valuable enough for Hasbro to patent. In 2018, the company announced it had trademarked the distinctive odor of the sculpting goop, which the company characterized as a “sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough.” Best of all, it doesn’t cause a rash.