The story of how Play-Doh was invented involves coal stoves, a wall cleaner, and a nursery school teacher who looked at a can of wall cleaner and thought “This could be a great toy.”
Prior to WWII many households were heated with coal, which left a dark sticky residue on walls. Efforts to clean it with available products would only make things worse, smearing painted walls or ruining paper wallpaper.
Kroger’s grocery stores in Cincinnati, Ohio, commissioned a company to find a solution. Kutol was the answer—a pliable, putty-like material that would draw the coal residue off walls without damage. It reigned supreme as the wall cleaner of the time.
Then coal stoves were replaced with residue-free gas stoves and homes began decorating with vinyl wallpaper that could be cleaned with regular products. As homes changed, so did Kutol’s fortunes.
One day nursery schoolteacher Kay Zufall read a newspaper article about making art with Kutol and thought:
She bought a can, added some food coloring, and gave it to her students to play with. The children loved it. They sculpted it, created creatures with it, rolled it out, and used cookie cutters to create shapes.
Zufall’s new use for Kutol could have faded into history if not for a fortuitous connection: she was the sister-in-law of Joe McVicker, nephew of Kutol’s founder.
Zufall shared her new use for Kutol with McVicker and persuaded him and company founder Noah McVicker to reconsider it as a child’s toy. The McVickers recognized its potential and retooled the company to produce “Rainbow Modeling Compound.”
Zufall’s new use for the wall cleaner transformed the company’s fortunes—but she had one last contribution to make to toy history when she told them:
“You should call it ‘Play-Doh’.”
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