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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Who Licked The Play-Doh?

Some of my favourite toys in the whole world involved ones where I could maximize my potential for creativity.

I know I’ve talked about how in my childhood, I would more often than not ignore the toys in my toy box to scribble in a colouring book or notepad with Crayola crayons, but the truth is that there were dozens of other toys that would allow me to get creative as well.  Certainly, with dozens of alphabet blocks and Legos, I could design a minuaturized version of New York City.  With a Spirograph, I could make as many hypnotic designs as I wanted.  In fact, I think I remember wanting desks for my Fisher-Price school house play set, and I made them out of pieces from my Jenga game. 

Yes, I was definitely one resourceful child.

One thing I will say about the toys of this century is that children have dozens more options for creativity than I had as a child.  They have coloured bubble blowing liquids, sidewalk chalk in every colour, and lots of other knick-knacks.  But there is one thing that I see children playing with that I used to love as a kid.  And this one thing was such that it almost became a sort of rite of passage to lick this substance at least once as a child.

Mind you, the stuff tasted extremely salty and disgusting, but when it came in every colour under the sun, you couldn’t help it sometimes.

Admit it.  You licked Play-Doh as a child, didn’t you?  I’ll come clean.  I did.  I even remember the colour I sampled too.  If memory served me, I was under the impression that the red Play-Doh tasted like Hawaiian Punch. 

Long story short, it didn’t.

However, I remember loving Play-Doh, and Play-Doh related products.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many Play-Doh play sets I owned in my youth.  A little bit later in this blog, I’ll be talking about what some of my favourite Play-Doh sets were.  Maybe it will help jog your memory a bit.

For now though, did you ever wonder how Play-Doh came to be invented?  It’s an interesting story. 

The substance known as Play-Doh was invented by a man named Noah McVicker.  At the time, McVicker worked for the Cincinnati based Kutol Products, a factory which specialized in the manufacturing of soap.  One of the company’s clients was Kroger Grocery, which asked the company to make a substance that could clean coal residue from wallpaper.  But, after World War II, many homes transitioned from coal-based heating to natural gas heating, and vinyl based washable wallpaper soon became available in the marketplace.  As a result, the need for cleaning solutions for wallpaper decreased, and Kutol Products faced bankruptcy.  It seemed as though the company would go bust.

That is until a relative of McVicker saw another use for the wallpaper paste, and used this to market the product a different way.

Noah McVicker’s nephew, Joseph McVicker, joined Kutol with the goal of attempting to save the company from filing for bankruptcy.  While he was working there, he soon discovered that the wallpaper paste that his uncle had developed was being used by nursery school children. 

No, the nursery school children weren’t learning how to wallpaper a room in between their ABC’s and 123’s.  But they were using the paste to create Christmas ornaments for their loved ones.  And this gave Joseph McVicker a rather clever idea.  He took a sample of the paste to a convention for school supply manufacturers, and while he was there, a Washington DC department store, Woodward & Lothrop, decided to start selling the product in their store as a craft item.

In 1956, seeing how successful the product was doing at the store, the McVicker family decided to start their own company, a venture known as the Rainbow Crafts Company.  It was here that they would start manufacturing and making the product that they would later give the name “Play-Doh”.

The company started off small.  Initially, their only products were a 3-pack of the standard 7-ounce cardboard canisters in the standard colours of blue, red, and yellow, as well as individual cans of the original off-white colour.  But within the year, Play-Doh would garner such buzz that Macy’s and Marshall Field’s would open up retail accounts with the company as well.  One year after Play-Doh began to be sold in stores, a chemist by the name of Dr. Tien Liu improved on the formula of the original compound.  By reducing the salt content inside the dough, he made the dough retain its bright colour as it dried.

As the company continued to grow, more colours were added to the Play-Doh collection, and the history of the company can best be explained with this timeline, courtesy of the history section of the official Play-Doh website.

1957 – Play-Doh begins manufacturing the blue/red/yellow 3-pack, and early advertising campaigns included Captain Kangaroo, and characters from Romper Room.

1958 – The 4-pack Play-Doh set, which added white Play-Doh to the blue/red/yellow 3-pack is debuted at American Toy Fairs.

1960 – Play-Doh Pete debuts as the official Play-Doh mascot; New 2-ounce mini-cans begin appearing on store shelves, as well as the first edition of the Play-Doh Fun Factory.

1964 – The year that Play-Doh expands outside of the United States, with the cans being sold in England, France, and Italy.

1971 – Rainbow Crafts Company merges with Kenner Toys.

1972 – The 500 MILLIONTH can of Play-Doh is manufactured.

1983 – After nearly thirty years, four brand new colours (orange, black, green, and purple) are invented and sold with the four pre-existing colours as an 8-can Rainbow Pack.  (FUN FACT:  The Rainbow Pack was my first introduction to Play-Doh!).  In later years, it would expand into a 10-pack with the addition of brown and pink.

1986 – The cardboard canisters are replaced with plastic cans to prevent the product from drying out prematurely.

1987 – Tonka Corporation purchases Kenner Toys and Rainbow Crafts Company, acquiring rights to Play-Doh manufacturing.

1991 – Hasbro purchases Play-Doh after acquiring Tonka Corporation.

1996 – To celebrate Play-Doh’s 40th anniversary, Play-Doh releases an educational CD-Rom game for schoolchildren called Play-Doh Creations.  As well, gold and silver Play-Doh is manufactured.

Today, Play-Doh can be found in dozens of colours and playsets.  In 2006, for the company’s 50th anniversary, they released a huge bucket of Play-Doh filled with 50 different colours of it!  And of course, there are lots of ways to play with Play-Doh.  If you were like me, you were incredibly creative with it.  You would build sculptures, you’d blend colours together, and the possibilities would be endless.

And that was without the play-sets.  Could you imagine how much fun the Play-Doh was when you used a play-set?  As I said before, there were dozens of play-sets that I played with as a child, both at home, and in my various elementary school classrooms.  But which sets were my favourites?  I’ll list them below.


When I think of one play-set that best describes all the fun that I had with Play-Doh, it has to be this one.  Anyone who is my age or older knows how this one worked.  You would pump the Play-Doh through the little holes on each of the plastic figures and watch as they all grew hair.  Then, you’d take the tools that came with the kit (safety scissors), and shave and cut their hair.  It was such basic mechanisms, and yet you could use the Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop to create thousands of different looks.  I wonder how many hairstylists and barbers out there played with one of these.


It was the very first playset to be offered, as well as the most basic.  And, yet, it was also the playset that millions of children loved to play with.  I know that I owned one in my childhood, and I loved it.  I don’t know what I liked making more...the spaghetti or the shooting stars.  It didn’t really matter.  I enjoyed it regardless of what I was making.


I received this play-set for my 8th birthday, and I immediately fell in love with it.  The playset allowed one to make Whoppers, milkshakes, and onion rings.  And the best part was that you couldn’t eat your creations because they were too disgusting!  Mind you, every time I played with it, I craved Burger King.  The Whopper maker was fun though.  The only thing I didn’t care for was the fact that the set only came with three colours.  Yellow, Red, and Green.  You had to blend the colours together to get the right shade of brown for the burger patties and buns.  I wasn’t very good at mixing colours, so as a result, my burger patties always looked as if they could kill someone with a lethal dose of E.coli bacteria.  Oh, well.


Okay, I never played with this as a kid, but I LOVE the idea!  As someone who admittedly has mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day because of the commercialism, I have to admit that if I were still in grade school, I would give these out in a heartbeat!  Each bag contains twenty miniature cans of Play-Doh in red, white, and pink, as well as individual labels to write the name of your Valentine on each can.  I for one would have loved to have gotten a can of red or pink Play-Doh at a Valentine’s Day classroom party.  To me, that would mean that the girl who gave it to me wanted to go steady or something!  The coolest idea I’ve ever seen, and I really wish that something like this had existed when I was younger.

Those are some of my favourite memories and products of Play-Doh.  Tell me yours.

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