The Fascinating Origin Tale of Play-Doh

9/17/22

The most amazing outcomes are sometimes the unexpected ones. You set out to do one thing and achieve another. For some, the unexpected amounts to failure. To those with the ability to recognize the benefit or potential of the unexpected, these results equal innovation, and with a pivot in a plan, they can change the world in ways big and small.

One story of innovation we can't stop ourselves from sharing is the origin story of Play-Doh. Initially, the substance in those yellow canisters was never meant to be played with by children. The tale of its original purpose is chock-full of lessons in innovation and pivoting for greatness.

Turns out, we can all learn a thing or two from this humble invention. It all started with—believe it or not—dirty wallpaper.

A business ready to kick the bucket

In 1912, Kutol was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio. They were in the business of wallpaper cleaning; more specifically, the company manufactured a pliable, squishy compound that was used for cleaning soot off of wallpaper. Business was booming for the first half of the century, but by the 1950s, too many households had switched from coal to natural gas and electricity, making sooty wallpaper a nonissue.

Kutol was treading water and dangerously close to going under. Joseph McVicker had inherited the leadership of Kutol from his father and was desperate for a lifeline for the company. His sister-in-law, a preschool teacher, showed him an article claiming that nontoxic wallpaper cleaning compound—like what Kutol produced—could be used for children’s modeling projects, since modeling clay was too hard to manipulate for small children. She even brought the material into her classroom, tested it with students, and suggested McVicker market the compound under a new name: Play-Doh.

Thus, Kutol was rescued from its foundering, and Play-Doh became a staple in schools and homes with small children.

Sharing the Doh-y fun

The reimagination of wallpaper cleaning compound took to the local schools like a spark takes to gasoline. McVicker supplied the newly-branded Play-Doh to all schools across Cincinnati, and the gushing approvals from teachers and students alike poured in.

By 1955, McVicker had presented Play-Doh at a national education convention and, in the following year, the company finalized the rebrand to Play-Doh, catching the attention of retail giants like Marshall Field’s and Macy’s. In 1957, the company softened Play-Doh even further and began manufacturing it in primary colors. A flood of endorsements and marketing campaigns poured in—including Ding Dong School’s Miss Francis and Captain Kangaroo.

In 1980, the Play-Doh palette had expanded to eight colors. Glow-in-the-dark, glitter, and scented options emerged in the years that followed.

From whacky spaghetti colors to mini snowmen to make-believe ice cream that never melted, wallpaper cleaner was becoming a household staple for a completely different reason. And while children would inevitably smash their Play-Dohs together and end up with just brown—looking very much as if it had been used to wipe soot off the wall anyway—parents returned to stores to stock up on the hot new toy again and again.

In a world of fancy new toys, Play-Doh is still a classic

From Nerf to Dungeons and Dragons to My Little Pony to Power Rangers, it’s no wonder that sales for toy manufacturer Hasbro surge year after year. Ever since Hasbro purchased the brand in 1991, Play-Doh has been a quiet, but steady, supporter of that growth, with billions of cans sold since its inception.

With all the bells and whistles on flashy modern toys, Play-Doh maintains a classic relevance. It keeps its edge with new colors, molds, and play sets, continuing to spark imagination and encourage creativity.

Play-Doh’s ingredients are pretty simple. It’s mostly salt, water, flour—and innovation. Thanks to his sister-in-law’s ingenuity, instead of giving up on a struggling business and a seemingly obsolete product, McVicker seized an opportunity at an entirely new venture.

The lesson to budding entrepreneurs (and learners) is…

…remember your business plans—or your plans for learning—even after years of very successful operation, are still, at best, just a blueprint. As the story of McVicker, Kutol, and the accidental creation of Play-Doh teaches us, taking a pivot in your strategy is not a sign of weakness or a lack of foresight. Rather, it’s an understanding that the path to success is often far from linear.

At Laurel Springs, our students are taught to pivot all of the time. With the freedom to obtain an education on their own timeline, students are given the opportunity to create and achieve their own goals, but also make their own mistakes and roll with their own losses. Our students learn that innovation is often an upward shot aimed at greatness, but it can also just be flexibility in order to stay afloat—like Kutol’s switch from a dying cleaning product to a beloved children’s toy.