After Hours

Geek Trivia: All work and no Play-Doh

What was the original purpose for the malleable substance we now call Play-Doh?

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We're technically four days overdue, but from the Trivia Geek's perspective, no time is a bad time to celebrate National Play-Doh® Day, even though this festivity officially falls on Sept. 18. (Sept. 22 is actually Elephant Appreciation Day—whoever gets to pick these official days is a subject worthy of a future column—so you traditionalists can all go out and rent a copy of Dumbo.)

In honor of this hallowed four-days-past event, I present you with some interesting Play-Doh statistics, courtesy of the current manufacturer of the world's most famous name-brand, nontoxic, faux modeling clay, Hasbro.

Washington, D.C.'s Woodward & Lothrop department store was the first venue to bring packages of Play-Doh to the public in 1956. In the 48 years since, various manufacturers have collectively churned out more than 2 billion cans containing more than 700 million pounds (that's more than 317 million kilograms) of Play-Doh.

For the record, that's almost twice the size of the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State, the largest dam in North America. Put in astronomical terms, the collective Play-Doh mass is about half that of the asteroid Eunomia, which was big enough to get noticed as far back as 1851. For its own part, Hasbro suggests running that mass though its own Fun Factory Play-Doh accessory, which would result in a continuous strand of Play-Doh long enough to wrap around the equator 300 times.

In other words, the world has seen a whole lot of Play-Doh, arguably enough for the full tally of the stuff to be visible from space. So whom do we thank for this bounty of malleable mischief that has led to countless hours of fun, foolishness, and inexorable carpet stains?

That would be Noah W. and Joseph S. McVicker, who received U.S. patent No. 3,167,440 in 1956 for their soft, pliable modeling compound. There's just one catch: This plucky pair of inventors didn't design this now-world-famous substance as a toy, but for a far more mundane, practical application.


What was the original intended purpose for the soft, malleable compound we now know as the classic toy Play-Doh®, actually conceived for a mundane, practical application?

Brace yourself, boys and girls: Play-Doh began its journey in this world as a wallpaper cleaner. If nothing else, that should at least partially explain the clinical odor many children and parents have come to know as "the Play-Doh smell," since this toy shares some of its ancestry with household cleansers.

When Noah W. and Joseph S. McVicker came up with the still-secret Play-Doh formula in the mid-1950s, they did it under the banner of Cincinnati product manufacturer Kutol, which developed the compound as a wallpaper cleaner called Cincy. When Kutol's financial fortunes began to falter, the McVickers decided to try a radical solution—they would market their nontoxic, supermalleable Cincy as a toy.

Play-Doh's name ostensibly comes from what little is publicly known of the compound's ingredients—flour, water, and salt—which it shares with similarly viscous bread dough. The fact that the original product was available only in one color (off-white) probably didn't hurt the dough comparison.

What's the only major difference between the original Cincy cleanser and Play-Doh? The smell: Believe it or not, the McVickers actually tried to cover Play-Doh's unique aroma by adding an artificial almond scent, which was reputedly an improvement over the original scent, but is nonetheless (ahem) distinctive, even today.

The McVickers test-marketed their idea to Cincinnati-area schools in 1955, which inspired enough confidence for them to demonstrate and sell Play-Doh the following year. Sales immediately took off, and by the time the first primary-colored versions of Play-Doh hit store shelves in 1957, a toy phenomenon was born. Most Americans first remember Play-Doh television advertisements appearing on the classic children's program Captain Kangaroo that same year, a campaign that all but sealed Play-Doh's fate as a toy for the ages.

Over the past five decades, ownership of the Play-Doh patent has changed hands five times, but the formula—and the aroma—have remained essentially the same. When you've got a toy—and Geek Trivia—this good, there's just no reason to change.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This quibble comes from TechRepublic member Bamaro. It refers to the Sept. 1 edition of Geek Trivia, "Can't place that name." It may be nitpicky, but that's what we're here for.

"My quibble is that tropical storms are named—not hurricanes. When a tropical storm grows to hurricane force, they simply keep the name of the tropical storm."

While I never said otherwise, dear reader, I should have spelled it out more plainly. Thanks for quibbling me honest.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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