A Brief History of Play-Doh (It Wasn’t Always A Toy!)
Most of us have fond childhood memories of afternoons spent experimenting with Play-Doh. At some point or another, just about all of us got our hands into the clay-like modeling compound to build colorful and fanciful creations.
Play-Doh wasn’t always a major household name, however. In fact, most people realize that the toy came to be almost entirely by accident. The first Play-Doh wasn’t marketed as a toy at all, but rather, a standard household cleaner for homes in the late 1930s. It was only once it lost its appeal as a cleaning solution that Play-Doh came to be.
Though Play-Doh might have started as a happy accident, it didn’t take it long to grow into a worldwide phenomenon. Even today, parents who remember enjoying Play-Doh themselves are still buying it for their kids to carry on the tradition.
Here, we’re going to dive deep into the history of Play-Doh. We’re going to tell you how it went from being a generic cleaner to the hit toy we all know and love today.
The Death of an Industry
It may surprise you to learn that Play-Doh hasn’t always been a children’s toy. In fact, many households had Play-Doh in their arsenal of cleaning supplies for around twenty years before it became the childhood phenomenon it is today.
Play-Doh was first sold as a wallpaper cleaner back when most households used coal to heat their fireplace. Though it was a cheap and efficient way to keep warm in the winter, it would also leave an unattractive layer of soot over wallpaper. What’s more, early wallpapers couldn’t get wet, and so traditional cleaners often fell short.
Early versions of Play-Doh were used to safely lift soot and other debris from wallpaper without causing stains or other damage. It was first invented by Cleo McVicker, who worked for the Kutol Products soap company in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In the early 1930s, the company was on the brink of financial collapse, but fortunately, a young McVicker struck a deal with local Kroger grocery stores. He agreed to make ready-made wallpaper cleaner exclusive to their stores, and he and his brother Noah quickly developed the nontoxic, moldable formula we know today.
This new, easy-to-use wallpaper cleaner was wildly popular among households until around the early 1950s. As coal-based heating systems began to fall out of fashion and easy-to-clean vinyl wallpapers replaced traditional styles, fewer people had a need for specialized wallpaper cleaner. Kutol Products had to find a new way to maintain profitability and stay afloat.
Seeing Things in a New Light
Though Cleo McVicker passed in 1949, his son Joseph continued his legacy upkeeping the Kutol brand name. However, with fewer and fewer people using their hallmark wallpaper cleaner, he had to think outside the box.
His sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, having access to plenty of Kutol wallpaper cleaner and knowing it was nontoxic, decided to let her elementary class use it for art projects. She found that young children could handle and mold the soft putty more easily than traditional arts and crafts clay.
Zufall took McVicker to her school to see his wallpaper cleaner in action as her students designed everything from make-believe food to small sculptures. Like her, he saw the product’s potential as a toy both inside and outside the classroom. With this revelation, he made it his mission to reimagine his formula from a lackluster household cleaner to an exciting new way to play for kids of all ages.
Repurposing and Rebranding
McVicker used the same formula, the same headquarters, and the same manufacturing equipment when he switched from making wallpaper cleaner to Play-Doh. Because the materials used were already cheap and nontoxic, there was no need to tweak the recipe to make it safe for children.
To stay in line with his new brand image, McVicker created the Rainbow Crafts Company Inc. in 1956. While this brand was still a part of Kutol Products, it had a much more vibrant, kid-friendly image.
While the end product was the same, the Rainbow Crafts Company completely repackaged it to give it a fun new look. Containers were now decorated with a bright yellow, blue, and red label. Four years after the creation of Rainbow Crafts, the brand introduced Play-Doh Pete as a mascot. The company depicted him as a friendly cartoon boy with an artist’s beret and a Play-Doh tub in his hand.
At first, Play-Doh was only available in white, as was the original wallpaper cleaner. McVicker felt that children would grow bored of colorless clay, however, and by 1957 introduced a choice of three different colors. Early Play-Doh came in red, yellow, or blue, all of which could easily be mixed to make new colors.
At first, Play-Doh was just marketed to schools around Cincinnati. Though McVicker wanted to push his product farther, he didn’t have the means to do so by himself. That’s why he sought out celebrity endorsement to help bring his new toy into the limelight with America’s youth. This way, he could make Play-Doh into something more mainstream than an art supply just for schools.
McVicker approached Bob Keeshan, more popularly known as Captain Kangaroo, for help marketing his toy. Though kids today might not be familiar with the name, those who grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s likely remember seeing Captain Kangaroo on morning children’s TV.
After trying out the product, Keegan was so enthralled with Play-Doh that he agreed to use it at least once each week in his show. Kids around the U.S. were exposed for the first time to the idea of Play-Doh from their hero, and consequently, sales rose astronomically.
Captain Kangaroo wasn’t the only children’s celebrity to publicly endorse Play-Doh. Miss Frances from Ding Dong School, another popular kid’s program, also spoke highly of the toy, and it was featured prominently on the show Romper Room.
Play-Doh gained popularity so quickly nationwide that the Rainbow Crafts Company struggled to meet demand, with toy stores often selling out completely. By the mid-1960s, it’s estimated that the company was shipping out more than one million tins of Play-Doh per year, and that number only kept rising.
Expanding the Line
It wasn’t long before Play-Doh became a worldwide craze. To capitalize on this, McVicker decided to expand the line to include many of the accessories kids still know and love today. The very first product was the Fun Factory, developed by two engineers in 1960. With this plastic toy, kids could mold, shape, and extrude their Play-Doh effortlessly.
Nowadays, there are seemingly endless accessories on toy shelves that allow kids to slice, dice, and create with Play-Doh. You can find everything from rolling pins and pizza cutters to full building sets. There are also more Play-Doh options to choose from, including multiple colors, glow-in-the-dark options, glitter lines, and more.
Today, Play-Doh is no longer owned by the Rainbow Crafts Company. General Mills bought the name in 1965, then placed it under the Kenner brand in 1972. In 1991, Kenner was sold to Hasbro, which remains the only manufacturer of name-brand Play-Doh.
In 1998, The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame officially inducted Play-Doh into its collection. The Strong is one of the largest history museums in the U.S. and focuses on exploring learning, development, and play. It’s National Toy Hall of Fame is dedicated to celebrating toys that have made a significant impact on children’s lives around the country.
According to Fortune Magazine, there have been more than three billion tins of Play-Doh sold worldwide in the years since its creation, which amounts to more than 700 million pounds. Play-Doh surpasses many other big names in terms of popularity and profitability.
Play-Doh continues to be a staple in toy boxes across the nation. It’s managed to hold its own even as television and video games have overtaken many other once-popular toys. Go into any toy store today, and there’s a good chance that you’ll still be able to find a wide variety of Play-Doh and accessories on the shelves.
If you were born anytime after the 1960s, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the Play-Doh brand. Many of us spent plenty of afternoons in our youth molding, modeling, and creating colorful art projects with Play-Doh and its dedicated accessories. It belongs in the same legendary category as crayola crayons.
While it’s a household name nowadays, Play-Doh wasn’t always as popular as it is today. When it first started out, it wasn’t even a toy at all, but rather, a household cleaner. When the creator’s son made the choice to rebrand his product, he may not have realized it, but he took the first step in creating a toy empire that would last generations.
Play-Doh continues to develop new colors, accessories, and other unique products for children of all ages. Even as toys become more technical, there will always be a special place for the creative spark the Play-Doh can invoke in a child’s mind. From school art rooms to household craft tables, Play-Doh has earned its place as a toy that deserves recognition.