Today I found out Play-Doh was originally used as a wallpaper cleaner. Further, the compound that eventually became Play-Doh debuted a full 22 years before Play-Doh hit the shelves. It also twice saved a failing company, Kutol, a Cincinnati based soap company. The woman who suggested the idea and name was given no credit in the patent nor any financial compensation. In addition to that, it took the help of one Captain Kangaroo to make it a national hit.
It all started with Kutol about to go under in the late 1920s. Cleo McVicker, just 21 years old, was tasked with selling off the company’s remaining assets, which at the time comprised mainly of powdered hand soap; once that was done, the company would be too. Cleo, however, managed to turn a nice profit in performing his task, the result of which was that the company managed to barely stay afloat. Cleo McVicker then hired his brother, Noah, and they set about trying to make the company viable again.
In 1933, Cleo was at a meeting with Kroger grocery stores when they asked if he made wallpaper cleaner. Wallpaper cleaner was a hot commodity as, at the time, coal was the leading way to heat one’s home, being much more efficient and cheaper than wood. This had the negative side effect of leaving soot everywhere, which was difficult to clean off of wallpaper as you couldn’t get it wet (this was before vinyl wallpaper).
In a bold stroke, Cleo told them they could make the wallpaper cleaner for them, even though no-one at Kutol knew how just then. Kroger subsequently ordered 15,000 cases of it from Kutol with a $5,000 penalty if Kutol didn’t deliver on time, which was more than Kutol had available to pay, if they failed. Luckily for the brothers, Noah McVicker was able to figure out how to make the commonly used wallpaper cleaner and the compound that ultimately would become Play-Doh was born.
Unfortunately for the brothers, though, while this provided the staple income for about a decade, after WWII, sales began to slowly dwindle thanks to the fact that coal heat was slowly being replaced by oil and gas furnaces. These furnaces obviously didn’t produce the soot problem, so cleaning wallpaper regularly wasn’t something that was needed. The sales further dissipated shortly thereafter when vinyl wallpaper became available. This type of wallpaper could be cleaned with nothing but soap and water, so the McVicker’s product was now virtually obsolete.
To make matters worse, Cleo McVicker died in a plane crash in 1949 and Joe McVicker, Noah McVicker’s nephew who was hired to replace Cleo, found out he had a rare form of cancer at the age of 25 and wasn’t expected to survive. *spoiler alert* He did, in fact, survive thanks to a new experimental radiation treatment. Although, even after treatment, the doctors deemed it unsuccessful and told him he would die shortly (in reality he didn’t die until 1992, though his ending was pretty sad all the same, see the Bonus Factoids below for more).
In any event, enter Kay Zufall in 1954, the unsung hero of Play-Doh history and the sister-in-law to Joe McVicker. Kay was running a nursery school and needed cheap materials to have her kids make Christmas decorations. In the process of searching for said cheap decoration materials, she read in a magazine that you could use wallpaper cleaner for this task. Knowing the trouble her brother-in-law’s company was in, she went out and bought a bunch of Kutol’s wallpaper cleaner, to see if it would work for this application. After not only observing that it worked, but that the kids had a blast playing with the wallpaper cleaner, she called Joe and told him they needed to make their now obsolete wallpaper cleaner into a toy. Joe then took a look at the Christmas ornaments made by the kids and agreed it was a great idea. They simply removed the detergent from the dough and added an almond scent and some coloring, as it was originally white.
Joe decided to re-christen the compound which would now be a toy: “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound”. Enter Kay Zufall to once again save the day, assuring him that that was a horrible name for their product. Her 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”, which they both loved and suggested the name to Joe, who also liked it.
Thanks to some connections to school board members formed from selling soap, they initially sold their new product to schools all throughout Cincinnati. They then began trying to market it to stores, with only a small amount of success locally.
While at this point it had saved the company, without money for major advertising, Play-Doh initially seemed to be destined for very slow growth. Joe McVicker though, one day managed to talk his way into an audience with Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo. He showed Keeshan the Play-Doh and explained to him that Kutol had no money for a national advertising campaign nor money to have the product put on the show. However, if Keeshan would agree to use the product once a week on Captain Kangaroo, they’d give the Captain Kangaroo production company 2% of the sales generated, so long as he continued to show it. The Captain agreed and Play-Doh quickly became a national hit, even appearing on other children’s shows thanks to the Captain Kangaroo exposure.
With the national exposure, Play-Doh quickly had about 116 months worth of orders to fill, even with the factory at their then max capacity. Further, even though they still sold the wallpaper compound for 34 cents for a can, they were able to get $1.50 per can on Play-Doh, for the same amount of compound, even though the two products were virtually identical, save the cleaning compound was white and had a small amount of detergent added.
- Joe McVicker’s marketing brilliance apparently didn’t extend to other matters of business. Within a few years of Play-Doh’s debut, with the company grossing $3 million per year and a large amount of profit in that gross and sales still rising at an extremely rapid rate as they began to expand to other countries, he agreed to sell “Rainbow Crafts”, which was the subsidiary of Kutol that made Play-Doh, for just $3 million to General Mills (for reference, that would be $18 million today). Because of the fact that the company was annually grossing that already and was still rapidly growing, this was viewed as a huge mistake by his employees, who tried to raise the money to out-bid General Mills, but failed. His former partner Bill Rhoedenbaugh also tried to convince him what a huge mistake that would be to sell for that small amount, but Joe didn’t listen to him either. This very quickly showed itself for the mistake it was when, a mere eight years later, Play-Doh had grown to a global children’s toy staple and shipped its 500 millionth can at that $1.50 per can price.
- Joe McVicker ultimately squandered the $3 million he made in the sale of Rainbow Crafts and Play-Doh and died near broke in 1992.
- Rhoedenbaugh no longer had any say in the matter of the sale of Rainbow Crafts and Play-Doh because he had been forced out by McVicker, with McVicker using his 51% ownership of Kutol to force him to take the still struggling Kutol in exchange for Rhoedenbaugh’s 49% stake in Rainbow Crafts, which made Play-Doh (though the two remained at least business friends, despite McVicker’s actions, after the split). It was at this time that McVicker filed the patent for Play-Doh, listing only himself and his uncle Noah McVicker as the creators, even though there were apparently around six total people that helped create it, including Rhoedenbaugh and Dr. Tien Liu.
- On the bright side, despite the fact that Kutol itself, without Play-Doh, was still struggling, Rhoedenbaugh managed to turn it around and today it’s one of the largest industrial and institutional hand soap manufacturers in the world. Rhoedenbaugh eventually retired, leaving the thriving company to his sons.
- Far from being upset about not getting any official credit or money for the idea of making Kutol’s wallpaper cleaning compound into a toy and subsequently giving that toy a name, basically saving the company, Kay is actually even today quite happy she could help: “People ask us, You gave the name away? Well who knew it would sell anything? Joe did the hard work, we had a part in it for sure, but if it hadn’t been sold, it wouldn’t have been anything.”
- Kay and her husband Bob, who is a doctor, run a clinic for the poor. The clinic gets around 12,000 patients a year, cared for by around 20 volunteer doctors, including Bob. The clinic is in Dover, New Jersey.
- The Play-Doh formula was somewhat refined in the late 1950s by chemist Dr. Tien Liu, to make it so that it wouldn’t dry out as quickly as the original wallpaper cleaner formula. His tweaks to the ingredients also made it so it wouldn’t turn white after drying out, which it did in the original formula.
- The original Play-Doh came in one gallon cans, in colors of red, blue, and yellow. They sold it in such large amounts per container because they felt their best bet was to sell it to schools, rather than try to sell it to home consumers.
- The wallpaper compound that would eventually become Play-Doh was actually quite common before Kutol started making it. The proportions were different, depending on whom you talked to, but the basic recipe was known by many a home-maker, which is how Noah McVicker learned how to make it in the first place.
- When it was released, Play-Doh had the huge advantage over popular modeling clay of the day, in that it didn’t stain, like modeling clay did.
- You might read certain places that Play-Doh was originally sold under the name “Magic Clay”, but this is not true. It was Play-Doh from the beginning.
- Play-Doh was purchased from General Mills by the Tonka Corporation and later bought by Hasbro, who still owns it today. Hasbro says that Play-Doh is primarily made of wheat flour, salt, and water. Other ingredients include preservatives, petroleum additives (to improve the texture), and borax, to prevent mold from growing on it.
- You can make your own Play-Doh type compound at home easy enough using 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of warm water, 1 cup of salt, 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, 1 tablespoon cream of tartar, liquid food coloring, and scented oils. For exactly how to make this, go here: How to Make Play-Doh
- Due to the extremely high amounts of salt in the compound, it is important not to let animals (or kids) eat Play-Doh. The amount of salt is high enough per unit volume that, if they ate enough of it to fill their stomachs (which isn’t so much a risk with kids as it is dogs), their sodium levels could rise to very dangerous, possibly even fatal, levels.
- Today, an average of nearly 100 million cans of Play-Doh are sold annually.
- National Play-Doh day is September 18th.
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