Did you know Play-Doh was originally a domestic cleaning product? It began life as a industrial wallpaper cleaner, but one ingenious lightbulb moment later, Play-Doh became a worldwide playtime phenomenon.
It was the run-up to Christmas. Mid-1950s. A group of school children were playing with some non-toxic clay-like wallpaper cleaner they had got their hands on, as you do – they didn’t have Moshi Monsters in the 50s, using it to make Christmas ornaments.
Discovering the cleaning product’s dual purpose, Joseph McVicker, cousin of wallpaper cleaner creator Noah McVicker, had a moment of inspiration. Rather than be used to clean wallpaper, the clay could be used as an inspirational toy for children. The idea for Play-Doh was conceived.
But things could have been very different. Kutol, the company behind the wallpaper cleaner, was in severe difficulty following the collapse of its product line after World War II. Vinyl wallpaper had hit the shelves of DIY stores. It could be cleaned with soap and water – the death knell for wallpaper cleaner.
But, convinced he was onto something, McVicker took the wallpaper cleaner to a convention for educational supplies, showcasing it as a dough for children. It soon found its way into Woodward & Lothrop, a department store based in Washington DC.
Previous modeling clays had been too robust for children to shape and mould, making the wallpaper cleaner a hit with kids in schools across Cincinnati. Following its success, in 1956 the McVickers formed the Rainbow Crafts Company, specifically to make and sell Play-Doh.
Originally available in just one, off white colour, Play-Doh soon appeared in a variety of child-friendly primary colours in 1957. Originally, Play-Doh was sold in a cardboard can with a metal bottom but, after discovering it was prone to rust, its makers replaced it with the plastic containers still used today.
At this time, Play Doh’s ingredients were still being adjusted. The salt content was reduced, enabling Play-Doh to retain its colour when dry, for example. Its makers used trial and error to get the mixture just right.
It wasn’t long before television ads were commissioned, branding Play-Doh with the catchy title: “America’s favourite modeling compound” and informing parents that “teachers like Play-Doh for its creative, educational value” whilst encouraging children to “make colourful party table decorations.”
Play-Doh had hit the big time. The McVickers filed a patent on Play-Doh on May 17 1960 which was eventually granted.
Rainbow Crafts began exporting Play-Doh to England, France and Italy in 1964, selling over a million cans of the stuff, and attracting the attentions of wealthy suitors. In 1971 Kenner Products merged with Rainbow Crafts, and Play-Dohbecame part of the Kenner family. A year later, Play-Doh production had notched up its 500,000,000th tub, and marched onwards with no signs of a slowdown.
The modern tub of love
Do you remember the Fun Factory?
It wasn’t until 1960 when Play-Doh introduced the Fun Factory playset, letting kids manipulate the colourful clay in new ways. To this day the Fun Factory remains just as popular with Play-Doh shape-shifters. Does it ring any nostalgic bells?
But it wasn’t until the eighties that Play-Doh began to expand its brand – a painfully slow progression by today’s fast-paced toy standards. The malleable material could be bought in four new colours on top of the original four, and packaged in a more securely sealed container. It wasn’t long before Play-Doh was snapped up by one of the toy world’s biggest manufacturers.
Toy firm Hasbro became its owner in 1991, and still is to this day. Even now, the enduring memories of Play-Doh evoke joyous childhood memories from anyone that has so much as caught the distinctive Play-Doh scent.
Toyology.co.uk editor, Peter Jenkinson recalls his parents banning the substance at first, forcing him to concoct his own top-secret Play-Doh formula.
“In our house Play-Doh was seen as an outlandish luxury, paying good money for what started life as a wallpaper cleaner would’ve been frowned upon.” Jenkinson reminisces.
“We tried to make our own. It was way off what the posh kids had, you couldn’t call ours modeling compound, a colourful but unsightly car crash of a failed cake making event [was] a better description.
“I did, twenty years on, invest in a Barbers Set. You pump the Play-Doh through a plastic chap’s head, then ‘cut’ it off. It was deeply satisfying, I even hid it when my folks came to visit.”
Now, with children of his own, Jenkinson has more Play-Doh than his shag pile can handle. “With kids of my own I now have way too much of the stuff, all the colours, most of the playsets, recently adding the breakfast set to our collection.” But even with his years of Play-Doh experience, Jenkinson has one golden rule.
“I never say to them “Don’t eat it”, I want my kids to experience one of life’s most important lessons alone” he says, grinning.
From wallpaper cleaner to toy icon – the story of Play-Doh is a classic story of chance opportunity and inventive success. More than two billion sales later, Play-Doh continues to leave a lasting legacy. Not bad for a mundane household cleaning product.