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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Failed wallpaper cleaner became invention loved by millions of kids

By Paul Niemann

[APRIL 20, 2006]  Noah McVicker and his dad, Joseph, brought a new product to the market. Manufactured by their new company, Rainbow Crafts, the product became an instant hit. Well, not exactly.

What originally started out as a modeling compound was first marketed as a wallpaper cleaner. When it failed as a wallpaper cleaner, they adapted, tweaked and reintroduced it a year later as a toy for kids. It was first sold to schools, kindergartens and nursery schools in 1955.

A year later, they first offered it to the general public at a department store in Washington, D.C. It came in only one color and one size, off-white in a 1 1/2 pound can. Since that day 50 years ago, more than 2 billion cans of the stuff have been sold.

It was 1956 when the McVickers introduced their new product, which had a texture similar to bread dough. It was the same year that the Department of Agriculture introduced the four basic food groups, and the minimum wage was just $1 an hour. Other new inventions that year included Certs, Yahtzee and the first ant farm ever sold (with live ants). The "Wizard of Oz" made its TV debut, as did Elvis Presley.

Nine years later, General Mills bought the McVickers' Rainbow Crafts Company. Then, in 1971, Kenner merged with Rainbow Crafts. Tonka Toys would later buy out the merged company. Finally, in 1991, Hasbro bought Tonka and its popular product, the same one that started out as a wallpaper cleaner, and made it part of the Playskool division.

Are you following all this? We're almost there. So what was it that the McVickers invented?


Joseph's sister-in-law, a nursery school teacher, didn't like the type of modeling clay that she was using with her young students, so Joseph sent her some of the stuff that they had been marketing as wallpaper cleaner. She loved it!

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When many of the Cincinnati schools started ordering it, Joseph took it to an education trade show, and this is where the department store mentioned earlier placed its first order. Joe McVicker, who was working for his dad at the time, became a millionaire before his 27th birthday. The rest is history.

It was granted a patent in 1965, but the formula for Play-Doh has remained top secret. It is protected by a trade secret, which is the same type of protection that keeps the formula for Coca-Cola and the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken confidential.

Play-Doh even has its own day named after it. Sept. 18 is known as National Play-Doh Day.

What started out as an accidental invention became one of the most popular children's products of all time. It could also be known as the fad that would not quit, because most fads last only a few months. This one has lasted more than five decades, and counting. There has been enough Play-Doh made to wrap around the world nearly 300 times.

Play-Doh. Or, as Homer Simpson would say, Play-D'ohhhh!

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at You can learn more about Invention Mysteries by visiting

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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