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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Failed wallpaper cleaner became invention loved by millions of kids

By Paul Niemann

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[December 11, 2008]  Last week's story was about Mr. Potato Head. Today we continue the theme of children's toys.  

When Noah McVicker and his dad, Joseph, brought a new product to the market, it became an instant hit. Well, not exactly.

The product was manufactured by their new company, Rainbow Crafts. 

It was originally a modeling compound and 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 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 were 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 Co. 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 its Playskool division.

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


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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!

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, Noah, at the time, became a millionaire before his 27th birthday. The rest is history.  

Play-Doh was granted a patent in 1965, but the formula has remained top secret. It is protected as 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 for 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's column is syndicated to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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