Play-Doh: From Wallpaper cleaner to toy icon

Did you know Play-Doh was originally a domestic cleaning product? It began life as an industrial wallpaper cleaner, but one ingenious lightbulb moment later and it became a worldwide playtime phenomenon.

It was in the run up to Christmas. Mid 1950’s. A group of school children were playing with some non-toxic clay-like wallpaper cleaner they had gotten their hands on, as you do – they didn’t have Moshi Monsters in the 50’s – 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 toy 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 & Lathrop, a department store based in Washington DC.

Previous modelling 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. A little trial and error was needed 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 modelling 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 attentions of wealthy suitors. In 1971 Kenner Products merged with Rainbow Crafts, and Play-Doh became part of the Kenner family. A year later, Play-Doh production had notched up its 500,000,000th tub, and marched on with no signs of slowdown.

The modern tub of love

Not until the eighties did the Play-Doh brand begin to expand – a painfully slow progression by today’s fast toy production 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 world’s biggest toy 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 thoughts from anyone that has so much as caught the distinctive Play-Doh scent. editor Peter Jenkinson recalls his parents banning the substance at first, forcing him to make his own top-secret Play-Doh formula.

“We tried to make our own. It was way off what the posh kids had, you couldn’t call ours modelling 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 learn one of life’s 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.