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, for at least two weeks, but be prepared for eight. 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. I’m currently participating in the “sewcial distancing” challenge on Instagram, which may result in some blog posts. 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.

A teal background features a Play-Doh ad, vibrant in the center is a colorful pack of Play-Doh. Red text reads "The Origins of Play-Doh"

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.

A white and gold wallpaper is marred by black soot, a small patch has been wiped away to make it clean. A red and green can of Kutol Wall Cleaner sits in the lower left croner.

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.

A teal background features a Play-Doh ad, vibrant in the center is a colorful pack of Play-Doh.

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.

An illustration of a boy and a girl playing with the Play-Doh Fun Factory. Black text below reads "Fun Factory"

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.

Sources
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.

Leave a Comment!

4 comments on “The Squeaky Clean Origins of Play-Doh”