Mr. Peanut, the Doughboy and Other Appetizing Characters at the Inventors Museum

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Did you know that there is a National Inventors Hall of Fame and Museum, and that it's located right in DC's backyard?

Me neither, but I enjoyed discovering it this week when they unveiled an attractive exhibit called "Inventive Eats." It's all about the people, products and processes that have transformed the American food system in the past couple of centuries, particularly the 20th century. (One could argue that it hasn't been an altogether good transformation in some ways, but let's stick to cultural nostalgia for now, shall we?)

The exhibit includes a replica of a 1950s-era kitchen, where you can watch and listen as various appliances light up and tell their stories, from a pop-up toaster to a Teflon pan. Sure, it's not as cool as Julia Child's kitchen, but you can walk right into this one. (Between the ceramic rooster decorations, yellow wallpaper, and blue-flowered Corningware casserole dish in the oven, I felt for a moment as if I'd stepped into my own grandmother's kitchen.)

Out in the small museum's main display room, there are several familiar faces. It's interesting to see how food advertising icons have morphed through the years.

Mr. Peanut, for example, was born in 1916 when a teenage boy named Antonio Gentile submitted a sketch of a "peanut person" in a contest to design a mascot for the decade-old Planters Nut & Chocolate Company. (Gentile received five bucks in prize money. Peanuts, indeed.) An ad agency tweaked the design into something more like today's Mr. Peanut, complete with hat and cane, and the company trademarked it in 1917. A full-size Mr. Peanut costume from the 1960s is included in the exhibit---a stiff shell of pale plastic with mesh-covered eyes that struck me as vaguely creepy, to be honest.

Another brand character who's improved with age is the Jolly Green Giant, who looked anything but jolly when he was introduced in 1928. According to the exhibit, he was invented by the Minnesota Canning Company to sell a new variety of larger, uglier peas at a time when the public preferred "small June peas."

A few characters have disappeared with time, like the smirking, top-hat-and-monocle clad tomato featured in early ads for Heinz Ketchup (invented 1869), who looks like he could be a villain in a Batman movie. And while Elsie the Borden Dairy Cow is still around, she's hardly as prominent as she was in her hay, er, heyday.

Then there's the Pillsbury Doughboy, a.k.a. "Poppin Fresh," who has endured relatively unchanged since he was developed in 1965 by Rudy Perz, creative director of Leo Burnett's ad agency in Chicago. The pudgy, giggly doughboy was given an endearing voice by Paul Frees, the actor behind such characters as Boris Badenov in Rocky & Bullwinkle, and within three years, the Doughboy (who, if you care, weighs roughly as much as 2 1/2 cups of flour) had become as recognizable to Americans as their own president.

Who's your favorite food brand character?

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