Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978
More Articles Browse All Articles >>

You are in:  Play | Play-Doh, Part III

Play-Doh, Part III

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

Play-Doh Goes Gonzo

Once Play-Doh hit, it took Rainbow Crafts over 16 months just to fill all the back orders. According to Rhodenbaugh, trying to keep up with the demand was fun and extremely profitable. “We would sell wallpaper cleaner for 34 cents a can, but Play-Doh—same stuff, same can––we could sell for $1.50. We were just a couple young kids in our mid-20s,” he laughed. “It was one hell of a run.” Kutol went from sales of under $100,000 in 1954 to owning and operating Rainbow Crafts with sales of nearly $3 million just four years later.  
In the mid-50s, Rainbow Crafts encouraged kids to allow Play-Doh to harden, because it dried out so quickly. By 1957, Joe McVicker had hired chemist Dr. Tien Liu to help his uncle N.W. improve on the Play-Doh recipe. “Dr. Liu made endless batches, tinkering with the formula,” Rhodenbaugh said. “In the beginning, after it dried, it turned white. Dr. Liu took a lot of the salt out of the formula and that kept it from drying out so fast and losing its color.”
Joe McVicker and his uncle N.W. filed for their patent on Play-Doh on May 17, 1960 and then split Rainbow Crafts from Kutol, leaving Bill Rhodenbaugh to run the less profitable hand soap company. “Joe had 51% of the two companies and I had 49%,” Rhodenbaugh recalled. “He came to me and said ‘I want to own this [Rainbow Crafts] entirely myself and I’m gonna give you Kutol Products as your share.’ Play-Doh exists because of at least a half a dozen key people, but Joe had an ego, so he took all the credit.” Despite the split, Joe McVicker and Bill Rhodenbaugh remained business partners, if not close friends. “I bought the building right next door and we still worked together. Kutol did all the packaging for Rainbow Crafts for years.”

Play-Doh BallsRainbow Crafts was shipping well over a million cans of Play-Doh a year when they began exporting to England, France and Italy in 1964. Its success within the merger-laden toy industry meant it was only a matter of time before a bigger fish was attracted to all that colorful dough. When General Mills offered Joe $3 million for Rainbow Crafts, a price comparable to over $18 million today, he took it. Bill Rhodenbaugh wouldn’t have sold. “The Rainbow Crafts employees wanted to buy the company and that would have been great, but it was Joe’s decision,” Bill said. “After he sold Play-Doh, it became a staple in the industry.” By 1972, a year after General Mills had placed Play-Doh under its Kenner brand, and just eight years from the time Joe had sold out, the 500 millionth can of Play-Doh reached the market.

A decade later in 1983, four new colors were added to the Play-Doh mix. Hasbro became its owner in 1991, and although some new scents have been introduced over the years, the original smell of Play-Doh remains one of Toyland’s most wonderful things.

The Sweet Smell of Success  

I pop the lid on a new can of Play-Doh and after emptying its bright blue contents, place the can to my face like it’s an airplane oxygen mask. I inhale deeply and then, as if actually on some magical aircraft, I travel to a different place. At once I am at my parents’ dining room table. I can see the pattern of the tablecloth, I can hear my mother in the kitchen behind me and I can taste the cherry Kool-Aid––the drink I used as a chaser after I ate a super-salty morsel of Play-Doh. It’s a wonderfully vivid visit, 30 years in the past.

Scientists call my trip a “Proustian Memory,” named after novelist Marcel Proust, who, in a 1913 novel, described how the smell of a certain cake dipped into lime-blossom tea had caused a flood of powerful memories. We now know there’s a biological reason for what Proust described and what Play-Doh delivers. The sensation of smell, the retrieval of memories and our emotions, are all processed on the right side of the brain and are, therefore, closely linked. According to aromatherapy experts, that link has the ability to reduce stress, increase energy, and restore the lost balance of the mind, body and soul. Of course, they’re referring to scents like nutmeg and lime-blossom tea, certainly not Play-Doh. Yet, give any surly adult a sniff of this magical modeling compound and you’ll witness a transformation as remarkable as any from the most fragrant frankincense. The pleasant aroma of Play-Doh can move us and yes, restore our lost balance to mind, body and soul. It smells a little like almonds, a little like grammar school, and a whole lot like childhood.
Unlike Play-Doh, Joe McVicker’s story did not have a happy ending. According to Rhodenbaugh, Joe squandered the money he earned from the sale of Rainbow Crafts and years later struggled with alcohol and other personal problems. He died in 1992. “Joe’s story after Play-Doh is just a sad one all round,” Rhodenbaugh says. When he thinks of his former partner, Bill prefers to think of the early days of Play-Doh. “It was exciting with Joe back then, seeing something grow like that––those were good times.” 

Kay Zufall believes in Joe’s contribution to childhood. “Play-Doh is a beautiful tribute to a young man who tried very hard and succeeded in saving a failing business. He made a profit, not only for himself, but for the millions of children who have enjoyed Play-Doh. That’s the beautiful part of the story.”

Play-Doh SnakeMore than 2 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold since 1955, enough to roll out a Play-Doh “snake” that would wrap around the earth nearly 300 times. On this sometimes frightening planet, it’s comforting to know that countless kids can take a lump of Play-Doh and hold the future at their fingertips. That’s the legacy of Joe McVicker and his Play-Doh compatriots––a world that kids can mold themselves.

  • The exact formula for Play-Doh remains one of the most highly guarded secrets in the toy industry.
  • Dr. Tien Liu helped perfect the formula of Play-Doh for Rainbow Crafts and went on to work for Kenner and then Hasbro for many years, as the world’s only Play-Doh expert.
  • Both Play-Doh and Captain Kangaroo debuted in 1955.

Epilogue: Life after Play-Doh

  • Kutol Products went on to become one of the largest and most respected manufacturers of industrial and institutional hand soap in the United States. Bill Rhodenbaugh is retired now and his two sons, Joe and Tom, run the Cincinnati-based company, whose historic past is steeped in Play-Doh.
  • Kay and Bob Zufall manage a successful clinic for the underprivileged in Dover, New Jersey. The thriving and esteemed Dover Community Clinic is staffed by 20 volunteer doctors who receive over 12,000 patient visits a year.

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

About the Author
The Playmakers author, Tim Walsh is also the co-inventor of TriBond and Blurt!, board games that have jointly sold over 4 million copies in thirteen countries. A fifteen-year veteran of the toy industry, Tim is a frequent speaker on games and toys, having appeared on TV and radio programs across the country, including CBS This Morning and NPR’s All Things Considered among others. He can be reached through his website at:

© 2004 Keys Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission from The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys, (Keys Publishing 2004). Photographs © 2004 Herb Booth, unless otherwise noted. Photograph of Kay and Bob Zufall courtesy of the Dover Community Clinic.


Don't Miss
Playmakers Part I: Radio Flyer Wagons
Today it’s one of our most identifiable pieces of Americana, but the Radio Flyer wagon actually started its long journey toward icon status 4,000 miles from the United States in a small town near Venice, Italy. From there, a 16-year-old boy named Antonio Pasin boarded a boat with no more to his name than his talents as a wood craftsman and a dream of owning his own business.


Share This

What Makes a Good Toy?

Award-Winning Toys

Media Ratings Television Ratings Movie Ratings Video Game Ratings

Sign Up
Our news & features delivered to your inbox.