The History of Play-Doh: Good, Clean Fun!

Chances are if you mention Play-Doh, your listener will know exactly to what you mean. Not only does the name elicit a mental image of the product in a small yellow can with a colorful lid, but it also evokes sensory memories: bold and vibrant colors; soft, pliable textures; an unmistakable aromatic scent; the soft “pop” sound of the can being opened; and yes, even taste—the distinct salty flavor that almost every child has certainly sampled at one time or another. But when was this modeling compound invented, and how did it become a household name?

Photograph of girl playing with Play-Doh, ca. 1957, The Strong, Rochester, New York.Play-Doh was actually in homes for at least 20 years before being considered a “plaything.” In fact, it was marketed and sold solely for another purpose: wallpaper cleaner! According to Tim Walsh’s book, Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers who Created Them, in the late 1920s Cleo McVicker was working for the Cincinnati, Ohio-based Kutol Products soap company. The company was close to going out of business when, in 1933, Cleo McVicker negotiated a contract with Kroger grocery stores to manufacture ready-made wallpaper cleaner to be marketed and sold in their stores. Although they had never made wallpaper cleaner before, Cleo returned to Kutol Products and his brother Noah, a product developer, came up with a winning formula. The result was a non-toxic, malleable clay-like compound made from water, salt, and flour that kept the company afloat and successful for another 20 years.

By the early 1950s, sales of Kutol Products wallpaper cleaner began to plummet. After World War II, families often converted coal-based home furnaces to oil and gas, thus reducing the soot residue issues that many homeowners previously battled. Following Cleo’s death in 1949, his son Joseph McVicker took over the business and faced the challenge of keeping the company going. Around this time, in 1955, McVicker’s sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, a school teacher, convinced him to think about their product as a handicraft and play object. McVicker traveled to Kay’s school to see the Kutol Products “clay” designs that her classroom had made and was happy with what he saw. He returned to headquarters to reformulate and repurpose the product they were already making, using the same heavy-duty equipment and manufacturing space—only this time, the end product was a child’s toy instead of wallpaper cleaner.

Rainbow Crafts, Inc., trade catalog, 1964, from The Stephen and Diane Olin Toy Catalog Collection, The Strong, Rochester, New York.In 1956, McVicker established Rainbow Crafts Company Inc., a subsidiary of Kutol Products. Rainbow Crafts repackaged the product, now known as Play-Doh and marketed it to elementary schools in the greater Cincinnati area. By 1957, Play-Doh was available in three new colors: red, yellow, and blue. McVicker wanted his product to reach a larger audience, not just schools, but he lacked a substantial advertising budget. His creativity prevailed once again when he introduced his new line of Play-Doh to Bob Keeshan, otherwise known to the television world as Captain Kangaroo. Keeshan loved the product and made an arrangement with McVicker to use Play-Doh at least once a week on his show. On the most popular children’s television show of its time, Captain Kangaroo catapulted Play-Doh into the national spotlight. Sales skyrocketed, and Rainbow Crafts struggled to keep up with the overwhelming demand for this new toy.

In 1960, accessories became part of the Play-Doh line when McVicker hired two engineers to develop a product that could be used in multiple ways. The result was the hugely popular Fun Factory that, with minimal force, would extrude Play-Doh into various shapes and designs. By 1964, Rainbow Crafts was shipping more than one million cans of Play-Doh per year. General Mills purchased the company one year later. In 1972, General Mills placed Play-Doh under the Kenner brand name, and Kenner continued to manufacture Play-Doh until the company was acquired by Hasbro in 1991.

Kenner Products, trade catalog, 1984, from The Stephen and Diane Olin Toy Catalog Collection, The Strong, Rochester, New York.Currently Hasbro continues to manufacture and sell Play-Doh. It is estimated that since the product was officially introduced in 1955, more than two billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold worldwide. Since 1960, dozens of accessories and playsets have also been developed and sold. Based upon its popularity and longevity, it should come as no surprise that Play-Doh was inducted into The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998. The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play has approximately 40 trade catalogs and print advertisements from 1964 through the present representing Rainbow Crafts, Kenner, and Hasbro. Additionally, more than 40 Play-Doh related artifacts can be found in The Strong’s collections.

It’s interesting to think that a product that started off as a popular wallpaper cleaner has become one of history’s most iconic toys. My three-year-old niece was recently introduced to Play-Doh and is now realizing all of the good, clean fun she can have with some wonderful smelling, colorful and soft, salty dough.