Toy-Lines Presents – Wallpaper cleaner turned toy

We’ve read about a toy that was created by accident (The Slinky), a toy originally created to help the war effort (Silly Putty), but did you know there was a toy that was originally wallpaper cleaner?

In the 1930’s when it came to heating your house, furnaces burned coal, which heated the house well, was cheap, but left soot on the walls.  Naturally people wanted their walls cleaned so a wallpaper cleaner was developed.  In 1933 Cleo McVicker, of Kutol Chemicals, was in a meeting with Kroger Grocery Stores, who was looking for a wallpaper cleaner product. Kroger asked Kutol If they made the product, which they didn’t, or know how to, but McVicker said yes and a deal was struck.

Kroger ordered 15,000 cases of their product but there was a clause in the deal. If Kutol Chemicals didn’t deliver by deadline Kutol would owe Kruger $5,000.00. Cleo went back to Kutol and explained the deal to his brother Noah. Noah went off to make the product, which turned out to be a white dough, that could in fact clean the walls.

During the 1940’s the more efficient gas and oil heating was being used in furnaces.  With gas and oil heat leaving no soot, Kutol Chemicals sales began to drop in their wallpaper cleaner.  Cleo McVicker died in a plane crash in 1949 and Joe McVicker, Noah’s nephew, took over for Cleo. Kutol Chemicals struggled to make due, when in 1954, Kay Zufall, nursery school teacher and Joe McVicker’s sister-in-law, mentioned how her school needed a better and cheaper form of modeling clay, since the existing ones were too difficult to work with. Kutol Chemicals sent the nursery school some of their wallpaper cleaner to use for clay, which worked. Impressed with it, Kay suggested to Joe to use the cleaner product as a toy. Kutol just removed the detergent element and the white clay was created.

Originally named “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound”, it was Kay who thought of the more descriptive name for the product, “Play-Doh”. She told McVicker, he liked it, and forever was it named. Local store Woodward & Lothrop Department Store began to carry the clay in their toy department.

McVicker struck a great promotional deal when he spoke with Bob Keeshan, or as most people know him, Captain Kangaroo. The deal was simple. If the Captain would feature Play-Doh on his show once a week, Captain Kangaroo would get 2% of sales so long as he kept featuring it.  The Captain said yes and soon a hit toy was everywhere.

Originally packaged in a cardboard can with a metal bottom, it weighed 1.5 lbs and cost $1.50. Sold under McVicker’s “Rainbow Crafts”, the official mascot was an elf-like character. Like most mascots the elf was redesigned and became a boy dressed like an artist named “Play-Doh Pete”. Play-Doh Pete went through several changes. In 1960 he wore a beret, then later he wore a baseball cap.

With Play-Doh’s success McVicker made some changes to the dough. For one, making it softer, and two adding colors like yellow, red and blue. More changes were to come. In 1965 General Mills bought Rainbow Crafts and became the owners of Play-Doh. 6 years later, Kenner Toys (long before their success with the Star Wars line) bought Play-Doh in 1971. 1986 was the end of the cardboard cans when they started selling it in plastic ones.

But still more changes were to come. 1987 was when The Tonka Corporation bought Kenner and the Play-Doh product. It remained with them until 1991 when Hasbro bough it all and included Play-Doh in its Playskool line of toys.

While the ingredients of Play-Doh are a secret, we do know that it contains wheat flour, water, salt and petroleum distillate. When September 18th rolls around, which is National Play-Doh day, remember that it all started with white wallpaper cleaner, and once the detergent was removed, grew to become an empire that exists even today.

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