During the first half of the 20th century, Play-Doh (before it became known by that name) was originally a wallpaper cleaner. It’s a story that has it all: success, failure, tragedy, rebirth, coal and Captain Kangaroo.
During the 1920s, Kutol, a soap company in Cincinnati, was floundering. They hired a 21-year-old named Cleo McVicker to help them sell off their assets, and he turned out to be great salesman. So great, in fact, that in 1933 he sold Kroger on a product that Kutol wasn’t even making: wallpaper cleaner.
In the early 20th century, coal was the main heating source for most families, but this filled their homes with dust. That made wallpaper cleaner a huge product, and McVicker wanted some of that business. After making the sale to Kroger, Cleo and his brother, Noah, went back to Cincinnati and scrambled to mix their own compound - facing a huge fee from Kroger if they couldn’t deliver.
They delivered to Kroger, and it was a big success - for a short time. Shortly after World War II, a triple-whammy hit Kutol and the McVicker family. First, people started using gas and oil furnaces instead of coal, and the market for wallpaper cleaner collapsed. Second, Cleo died in a private plane crash, leaving the company without a leader. Then Joe, Cleo's nephew who had joined the company, was diagnosed with cancer.
The company faced a crisis, and it would have folded if it weren’t for Kay Zufall - Joe’s sister-in-law, who worked at a local nursery school. It was Christmas in 1954, a season when wallpaper cleaner sales usually spiked. But this year, the Kutol factory was quiet, and Joe was still in treatment. Kay was reading a magazine article about Christmas decorating when she had the idea to use Kutol’s wallpaper cleaner as a cheap toy decoration for her students. She went to the store, bought a can, and the kids loved it.
Kay felt that they had a real hit, but it needed a name. Joe suggested “Rainbow Modeling Compound,” but luckily Kay was savvy enough to know better. She suggested “Play-Doh,” and the name stuck. They marketed to school districts and educational conventions, and their business slowly grew. But sales really exploded in 1957 when Joe, after a miraculous recovery, struck a deal with Captain Kangaroo: 2% of Play-Doh sales for an announcement on Kangaroo’s show.
By 1964, they were selling over a million cans of Play-Doh annually and had back orders for over a year. That’s when the corporations came knocking: General Mills bought Play-Doh for $3 million (about $23 million in 2015). To this day, over 2 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold - enough to wrap around the planet 300 times.