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Playmakers Part II: Play-Doh

Debut: 1955
Inventors: N.W. McVicker, Joe McVicker (1929–1992)
Developers: Kay and Bob Zufall, Bill Rhodenbaugh, Dr. Tien Liu
: Kutol Products, Rainbow Crafts, General Mills, Kenner, Tonka, Hasbro

Good, Clean Fun

Cans of it are in preschools, nursery schools and tucked away in kitchen cupboards and family playrooms around the world. Recipes on how to make it continuously pop up in magazines and on the Internet as its maker, Hasbro, fights to keep its name from becoming a generic label for all “modeling compounds.” Its status as one of the most beloved toy products ever created makes its origin one of the weirdest of all toy stories. Play-Doh, that moldable stuff from childhood––sold in 75 countries in the staggering quantity of 95 million cans a year––was first invented as commercial wallpaper cleaner.

The legend of Santa Claus leaving lumps of coal in the stockings of bad little children has given the fossil fuel a bad reputation. Yet it was because of coal, or more accurately the messiness of heating with coal, that Play-Doh came into being. From 1885 until about 1950, coal was our nation’s most widely used heating fuel. It produced four times the energy of wood at about half the cost, with the only downside being the sooty mess that coal furnaces produced. Non-washable surfaces like wallpaper presented a particularly troublesome problem. Spring-cleaning time found homemakers kneading a dough mixture of flour, water, salt and borax and rolling it up and down their papered walls to pull off the coal soot. Soon companies began offering premixed wallpaper cleaner. Play-Doh’s off-the-wall journey from cleaning compound to modeling compound began in 1927, at a dying Cincinnati soap company called Kutol Products.

Cleo McVicker was just 21 years old and working for Kutol Product’s parent company in Chicago when he was told to drive down to Cincinnati, sell Kutol’s inventory and shut the place down. In peddling the remaining supply of powdered hand soap, McVicker had enough success to convince the parent company to allow him to stay in Cincinnati and try to turn the failing business around. He hired his brother, N.W. McVicker, as plant manager and maker of their various cleaning compounds, and hit the road as a soap salesman. The turnaround came in 1933. “That’s when Cleo went to Kroger grocery stores and asked to bid on their wallpaper cleaner,” Bill Rhodenbaugh, former Kutol president and McVicker in-law said. “At the time Kroger bought private label wallpaper cleaner, so they asked him ‘Do you know how to make this stuff?’ and he said ‘Oh yeah, we can make it.’ Cleo was so gutsy.”

Red Play-DohAccording to Rhodenbaugh, Cleo signed a $5,000 performance bond against the order, which meant that if he didn’t ship 15,000 cases of wallpaper cleaner on time, it would cost Kutol $5,000, enough to put the brothers out of business. “Cleo came back and told his brother about the order and N.W. asked, ‘Well how do you make it?’ and Cleo said, ‘Hell if I know! That’s your job!’” Bill laughed as he told the story. N.W. figured out how to make the cleaner in time to get the order out. Amazingly, the brothers made this nontoxic, malleable stuff for another 20 years, eventually bought Kutol and became the largest wallpaper cleaner manufacturer in the world.

Tragedy and the collapse of their core product line struck Kutol after World War II. Cleo McVicker died in a private plane crash in 1949. His widow, Irma, inherited the company and hired her son Joe McVicker and her son-in-law Bill Rhodenbaugh to help fill the void that Cleo’s death had created and to try to reverse the company’s plummeting sales. “After the war, conversion furnaces (powered by oil or gas) came out and the soot problem was gone. Then vinyl wallpaper was introduced, which could be washed with soap and water. All of a sudden there wasn’t much market for wallpaper cleaner,” Rhodenbaugh said. “The business was not in good shape.” As Kutol faced a major financial crisis, Joe McVicker had a much bigger concern. He was 25 years old and had just found out he was dying.
McVicker was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a rare form of cancer. His entire family rallied to help, including his sister-in-law Kay Zufall. “My husband Bob was a doctor in training in Bellevue, New York so we brought Joe up there,” Kay recalled. They operated but it was unsuccessful.  Bill Rhodenbaugh remembers it well. “They sent him back to Cincinnati to die, and damn if he didn’t beat it.”

After rounds of experimental radiation treatment, McVicker was struggling to recover while the business slid further toward collapse. Christmastime had always been when wallpaper cleaner production peaked, so that by the end of winter shipments could reach stores in time for spring-cleaning. The holiday season of 1954 found the Kutol plant eerily quiet. It turned out to be the calm before the storm.

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