Play-Doh: From Wallpaper Cleaner to Child Charmer

Play-Doh: From Wallpaper Cleaner to Child Charmer

Why you should care

Because some products just need outside-the-box thinking, an almond scent and a kangaroo to succeed.

In the mid-1950s in Dover, New Jersey, a teacher is doling out modeling clay to her nursery school class. The children are excited to make Christmas decorations but figure today will be no different from yesterday, when they struggled with hard-to-shape blobs. But Mrs. Zufall has an ace up her sleeve: Today’s offering isn’t really clay; it’s wallpaper cleaner.

The pliable stuff squishes between the students’ tiny fingers, eliciting squeals of delight — and heralding the birth of Play-Doh.

And that’s before they added color.

That kids today (and their parents) get to have fun with Play-Doh is thanks to more than one schoolteacher’s ingenuity. The company behind the product, Kutol, was the early-20th-century version of a Little Business Rebranding Engine That Could.

Play-Doh is here today thanks to more than one nursery schoolteacher’s ingenuity.

Cincinnati-based Kutol Products Co. traded mainly in powdered hand soap back in the 1920s. Struggling to stay afloat, the business started shedding assets and reinvested the profits from the fire sale to keep its doors open.

In 1933, representatives from the Kroger supermarket chain asked Kutol if they made wallpaper cleaner — a popular product for removing stains from coal-fire heating. Kutol did not in fact make wallpaper cleaner, but that didn’t stop them from pledging to fill a 15,000-case order.

Considering that many housewives used homemade recipes to make goop that cleaned coal soot from their walls, the firm confidently set out to concoct its own cleansing mixture of flour, water, salt, boric acid and mineral oil (the exact formula is still a guarded secret). The order was filled, and Kutol was back in business, at least for a while.

After World War II, homes used less coal for heating and vinyl wallpaper hit the markets, which meant that wallpaper cleaner got scrubbed from shopping lists. And Kutol was in crisis mode once again.

McVicker, like any savvy business leader, knew that rebranding is often the quickest way out of a rut. Recognizing the potential to repackage its wall cleaner as a toy, Kutol removed the cleaning agent from the recipe and added an almond scent that, like Proust’s madeleine, still transports grown-ups back to their childhood days.

The company sent Play-Doh to local schools to spread the word. And it sold a one-and-a-half pound can of Play-Doh at the bargain price of $1.50 (except when compared to the 34 cents that got you its nearly identical wallpaper cleaner), but sales remained sluggish. Along with its new audience and product, the firm needed a different name, packaging and price. The initial idea, “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound,” was scrapped, thanks again to Mrs. Zufall. “You can’t call it that,” she told her brother-in-law, offering the child-friendly alternative “Play-Doh.”

By Play-Doh’s 50th anniversary in 2005, more than 2 billion cans had been sold.

Short on funds to market the product, Kutol’s management made a deal with popular Captain Kangaroo host Bob Keeshan. In exchange for using Play-Doh on his hit kid’s TV show once a week, Keeshan would get a cut of the revenue — a stroke of genius that sent sales hopping.

By Play-Doh’s 50th anniversary in 2005, more than 2 billion cans had been sold, and sales are currently estimated at 95 million cans a year, feeding the creative juices of budding young artists, and some older ones, worldwide. The product has been tweaked over the years to improve pliability and expand its rainbow of hues, not to mention the oodles of tag-on items that inspire children to shape, comb and squeeze the clay into every imaginable form.

Joe McVicker sold Kutol’s spin-off firm, Rainbow Crafts, which peddled Play-Doh, in the early 1960s. Joe Rhodenbaugh, Kutol’s current president and a descendant of Play-Doh’s creators, says the sales price was never disclosed but guesses it was between $3 and $4 million. Today Play-Doh is a part of the Hasbro family, and Kutol still operates as a cleaning company.

And the teacher who made it all happen? Mrs. Zufall, who didn’t profit or take much credit for her role in developing Play-Doh, died this year at 87, a beloved community leader in New Jersey.

Parents everywhere, meanwhile, continue to extract multicolored remnants of their kids’ artistic endeavors from every corner and carpet in the house, remembering too well the distinctive scent and hours they spent with the wallpaper-cleaner-turned-magical Play-Doh.

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