The Squeaky Clean Origins of Play-Doh
Before we dive into today’s post, I want to take a moment to address the current COVID-19 pandemic. I know, you come here for the fashion, unique destinations, and weird history, but without health, we have nothing. Daily new precautions and preventative measures are being suggested and implemented. Due to our severe lack of proper testing at the moment, the US is strongly advised to take part in social distancing. Patrick and I have committed to doing this, and as a result, the blog’s content will shift. There will be far fewer, if any, “Places to Explore” type posts, and “Amusement Park” posts will cease during this time, as every amusement park has closed their gates. Additionally, I started cooking from a vintage cookbook, and plan on beginning a new series of posts for the blog. I also plan on doing more “History Lesson” posts, which is what brings me to today’s post, and begins with what we all should be doing now…washing our hands with soap.
In the late 1920s Kutol, a soap company in Cincinnati, was failing. Twenty-one year old Cleo McVicker was given the task of cleaning up, as it were, by selling off Kutol’s assets, but somehow he managed to revive the company when in 1933 Cleo met with representatives of Kroger grocery stores, another Cincinnati based company, who desired a wallpaper cleaner.
Prior to the mid-20th century, coal was the leader in heating homes, however when spring arrived, the coal left a sooty build up on the decorative wallpaper. The soot was difficult to clean because wallpaper could not get wet. Cleo, with his brother Noah, came up with a soft, malleable dough like compound that lifted the soot from the wallpaper without damaging it, and as a result Kutol was back in business.
Tragedy struck in 1949 when Cleo died in a plane crash, and the heating business began to change. Noah hired his own nephew, Joe McVicker, to replace Cleo, but by the 1950s there was a shift away from coal to heat homes, replaced by gas and electricity. The need for Kutol’s star product had melted away with the winter snow. In the meantime Kay Zufall, Joe’s sister-in-law, was a nursery school teacher and had recently read about wallpaper cleaner being used as modeling clay. In need of an inexpensive toy for her school children, she got some of Kutol’s wallpaper cleaner and gave it to children to play with. It was a hit! Zufall told McVicker of the product’s success, and even had a name, “Play-Doh.”
Zufall’s idea turned the soap company around, and Joe created a subsidiary company, Rainbow Crafts Company, which debuted Play-Doh in 1956. The only changes from the cleaner to child toy was the removal of the detergent, and addition of almond scent. Because Kutol had sold soap, they had ins with schools already, and originally started selling directly to schools. Later Woodward & Lothrop, a department store in Washington D.C. was the first to carry Play-Doh, followed by Macy’s. Sales increased when Play-Doh teamed up with TV icon Captain Kangaroo, who mentioned the product twice a week on his show in exchange for two percent of sales.
By 1960 the Play-Doh Fun Factory toy press was introduced, and in 1964 they had sold one million cans within a year. The following year however, Rainbow was sold to General Mills, who in 1972 sold Play-Duh under Kenner. In 1991 Hasbro acquired the brand, who continues to produce Play-Doh over 50 years after its transformation from wallpaper cleaner to child’s toy.
Thanks to the genius of the McVicker brothers and Zufall, Kutol is still in business today, and Play-Doh remains a fun toy for children.
Hiskey, Davin. “The shocking story behind Playdoh’s original purpose.” Business Insider, 20 September 2015. Accessed 13 March 2020.
Kindy, David. “The Accidental Invention of Play-Doh.” Smithsonian Magazine, 12 November 2019. Accessed 13 March 2020.
Winner, Tara, “The History of Play-Doh: Good, Glean Fun!” Play Stuff Blog Museum of Play, 3 November 2016. Accessed 13 March 2020.
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4 comments on “The Squeaky Clean Origins of Play-Doh”
Love to read about your adventures. And today’s blog was fun. Just be careful with cooking from the old cookbooks. Those recipes are so bland. Major spices were salt and pepper. Since I’m very old, I remember how extremely “foreign” Italian restaurant food was; it had garlic!! Enjoy. Remember tuna casserole was about as exciting as it got in the 1940’s.
Interesting, I had no idea! Of course, being human, I LOVE Play-Doh. Thanks for the background info :o)
This made me want to run out and buy some – just for that ‘smell’!
Some additional fun facts:
– largest Play-Doh can is at the Disney Pop Century resort at Disney World. It’s 35 ft tall and has a blue elephant and yellow Giraffe peaking out of the top. https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMQV0H_Giant_Play_Doh_Can_Disneys_Pop_Century_Resort_Florida_USA
Play-Doh fragrance made by The Demeter Library of Fragrance for Play-Doh’s 50th Anniversary. This salty, musky fragrance is still available online. https://demeterfragrance.com/play-doh.html
For serious Play-Doh buffs, there’s the 36 can Play-Doh mega Pack featuring 36 different assorted colors which is about 6 pounds of Play-Doh compound.
In 2013 artist Eleanor MacNairs was challenged to recreate famous photographs using Play-Doh. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-artist-play-doh-meticulously-recreate-famous-photographs
What a fabulously charming stroll down memory lane. I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many hours my siblings (and friends) and I played with Play-Doh (storebought and homemade versions alike) as youngsters.
I’m (we’re) with you guys big time. One absolutely cannot be too safe or cautious right now. While Canada is not officially in lockdown yet, Tony and I are voluntarily entering into it this week and do not plan to leave the house (barring medical emergencies, of course) for at least one month or longer. At which time, if needed, we will purchase more food, then continue in lockdown for another month and so forth until this heartbreakingly difficult global crisis has receded significantly.
May you two be safe, healthy and well around the clock,
Autumn Zenith 🎃 Witchcrafted Life