Do you know how Play-Doh was invented? Play-Doh was originally a wallpaper cleaner.
In 1933 Kroger grocery stores asked Cleo and Noah McVicker, owners of Kutol, for wallpaper cleaner. In those days, people used coal to heat their homes. They needed a cleaner to remove the soot from the walls. Noah developed a putty for this purpose, made mostly from flour, water and salt. The dough could be rolled across the soiled wall to lift up grime. (For antique or delicate papers, this technique is still used today!
After WWII, coal heat was slowly being replaced by oil and gas furnaces. These furnaces didn’t produce the same type of soot that burning coal did. Sales started to decline rapidly as cleaning wallpaper needed anymore. Vinyl wallpaper that could be cleaned with soap and water rendered the wallpaper cleaner virtually obsolete.
In 1949, when Cleo McVicker died in a plane crash, Joe McVicker, Noah’s nephew, was hired to replace Cleo. In New Jersey, Joe’s sister-in-law, Kay, ran a community nursery school. She spotted a magazine article on decorating for the holidays. “I guess I was looking for inexpensive ways to decorate when I read that you could make Christmas tree ornaments by using wallpaper cleaner.” She wondered if Joe had ever heard of this. “I immediately drove out to the local hardware store and asked if they had Kutol wallpaper cleaner. They had a hard time finding me a can, but they did. I rememberr being very excited, I mean, here my brother-in-law, Joe, was dying of cancer, his business was failing and I just might have something here they could make.” Kay brought the dough-like material into her nursery and the kids loved it. “We rolled this stuff out, and then took cookie cutters and cut out the shapes. We put little holes at the tops and then I dried them out in the oven at home. Afterwards, we called Joe. I told him ‘You can make that stuff into a toy!’ So he flew out, looked at those ornaments hanging on our tree and said. ‘My God, we’ll do it.’¹
Joe decided to re-christen the compound: “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound”. Kay told him that this was a horrible name for their product. She and her husband, Bob, then set about trying to think up a better one. In the course of their discussions, Kay came up with “Play-Doh”. ( Or as some people think it is spelled – Play Dough 0r Play-Dough).
By everyone’s account Joe McVicker was a charismatic salesman, and when he talked his way in to see Keeshan, (also known as Captain Kangeroo) he ended up closing the deal that made Play-Doh famous. “Keeshan liked Play-Doh and wanted it on his show,” recounted Rhodenbaugh. “But Joe told him that we didn’t have any money for advertising. So Joe offered him 2% of our sales if he would feature Play-Doh on the show once a week. Well, the Captain liked it so much that he started featuring Play-Doh three times a week! I don’t think there was ever a contract, but I remember signing checks and sending them to his production company. After that we got on DingDongSchool (with Miss Francis) and Romper Room. We had the country saturated with television.”²
Interesting enough, they made more money on Play-Doh than on the wallpaper cleaner they were still selling. The wallpaper compound sold for 34 cents per can, and Play-Doh sold for $1.50 per can even though they both contained the same amount of the “Doh”.
By 1958, they had already sold almost $3 million worth of Play-Doh. At that point, Noah and Joseph finally decided they should apply for a patent for it. Interesting, the Patent Office did not officially patent Play-Doh for almost ten years. It is amazing that no other company crated a similar product in that time. The same year their patent was granted, the company was bought up by General Mills for $3 million. These days, the product is owned by Hasbro.
Did you know – if you took all of the Play-Doh that’s ever been made, rolled it into a big ball (or maybe the world’s longest Play-Doh snake), it would weigh as much as 2,000 Statues of Liberty!
¹,² Quotes on this page came from an article on Play-Do from http://www.parents-choice.org