This week, I went to trivia with a couple of my friends, and the bonus round’s question was “what children’s toy was originally made as wallpaper cleaner?” We were very unsure and had no idea. We originally bet bubbles and I put in some outrageous answers, like lightsabers or G.I. Joes. We won trivia, but only because we played it safe and didn’t bet that many of our points. All the other teams bet the maximum, and no one got it right. The most common answer was Silly Putty, which in itself was a great guess.
No — the children’s toy that was originally made as a cleaning product was Play-Doh. I was pretty shocked, so I decided to look into the history of how Play-Doh developed, and how it went from a cleaning product to a children’s toy.
Let me just say I love Play-Doh. I used to try to make all sorts of animals with it as a kid — the octopus was particularly difficult. My mom probably had to stop me from trying to eat it. In my particularly misbehaving days as a child, I tried throwing Play-Doh at my classmates.
This is the story behind Play-Doh and Kutol Products Company, the Ohio cleaning products company that made it.
According to David Kindy at Smithsonian Magazine, Kutol was a failing company before the creation of Play-Doh. The company’s main product was used for getting soot off of wallpaper. Kindy notes Kutol was doing quite well in the first half of the 20th century. It became the biggest wallpaper cleaner company in the world, but it started to struggle in the 1950s — moving away from coal as a form of heating made soot buildup on wallpaper no longer a problem.
At the time, Noah McVicker ran the company. He founded it with his brother, who died in 1949 in a plane crash. The nephew of McVicker, Joseph McVicker, heard a story from his sister-in-law about an article about making art projects for children with wallpaper putty. The sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, used the product as a teacher with her students.
They loved it. They would mold the putty into all kinds of shapes and she suggested they use the putty as a children’s toy, and even suggested the name “Play-Doh.” Zufall’s efforts saved the company, leading to Play-Doh’s creation as a children’s toy. According to Greg Hatala at NJ Advance Media, the original name the McVickers thought of was “Rainbow Modeling Compound” until Zufall talked them out of it.
The company’s fortunes immediately turned around. The product started being marketed as an educational product for school supplies at a Washington D.C. store, according to Ohio History Central. The McVickers then made Rainbow Crafts Company Inc., a subsidiary that exclusively made Play-Doh and sold it. Soon, Macy’s started selling Play-Doh and the product started appearing on ads, particularly high profile ones like Captain Kangaroo. The Museum of Play notes getting Captain Kangaroo was a substantial accomplishment since the company did not have a large advertising budget. Within a couple of years, in 1958, Play-Doh made $3 million, which is worth $28 million today. Demand quickly exceeded supply and the company struggled to keep up with making enough for its audience.
In 1958, Joseph and Noah McVicker applied for a patent for Play-Doh, and would eventually be rewarded the patent by the United States Patent Office. Play-Doh also expanded its versatility — originally only coming in white, the children’s toy also started offering red, yellow, and blue Play-Doh packages. Also, the company initially only sold Play-Doh in gallon sizes, like they did with wallpaper cleaner. However, Kutol realized a gallon of Play-Doh was too large of packaging — instead, the company started offering 11-ounce containers of Play-Doh.
The Play-Doh product line also expanded, and Rainbow Crafts Company Inc. started hiring engineers who made the Fun Factory, which could mold Play-Doh into different shapes.
Rainbow Crafts Company Inc. would be solely responsible for Play-Doh, while Kutol Products is still in business and making cleaning products. Over history, the product would come under the ownership of bigger and bigger companies. General Mills bought Rainbow Crafts Company Inc. in 1965, and seven years later, in 1972, Play-Doh was placed under General Mills’ subsidiary, Kenner. Hasbro bought out Kenner in 1991 and continues to manufacture Play-Doh.
In 1998, Play-Doh was nominated and then inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. As we all know, Play-Doh is still one of the most popular children’s toys today.
Fortunately, Kutol’s wallpaper cleaner was not toxic, or making it into a children’s toy would not have worked. But the dying company owes much, or even all, of Play-Doh’s success and existence to Kay Zufall, a nursery school teacher. Without her ingenuity, creativity, and relationship with the McVickers, no one would have thought to make wallpaper cleaner into a toy.
According to Hatala, Zufall would die on January 18, 2014, of Alzheimer’s Disease. She would never make any money from Play-Doh despite coming up with the idea, but Play-Doh was never her biggest accomplishment — she and her husband, a urologist, founded Zufall Health Center to provide affordable health care to uninsured and underserved people in Dover.
Needless to say, the McVickers and Kutol got very lucky. Sometimes, life just works out that way.
Originally published on Frame of Reference on May 20, 2021.