(Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this repost of a classic Retroland article)
Each of us seems to have a number of scents stored within our brain, just waiting to unleash memories of the past the moment we catch a whiff. Whether it be a freshly cut lawn before a baseball game, an oven full of piping hot-cookies, or simply a can of colored wallpaper paste, these fragrances instantly return us to a better time, a simpler time.
Perhaps you know it better by its brand name, Play-Doh; a non-toxic, flour-based modeling clay that has captured the imaginations of children for over four decades. And while some among us may have trouble remembering exactly what it was that we sculpted with this malleable dough, everyone, it would seem, remembers its unique smell. Today, we take a look back at one of the most beloved arts and crafts toys ever created.
Introduced in 1956, Play Doh was the creation of a Mr. Joe McVicker, who created a modeling clay from wallpaper paste and presented it to his sister’s pre-school students who loved it. You could create anything your imagination envisioned and if you didn’t like it, just push it all together and start over. As long as it was kept sealed within its airtight container, it would remain soft virtually forever. Of course, should you wish for your sculptures to have a more permanent quality, Play-Doh would harden when exposed to air for a day or so. Many children learned this lesson the hard way by failing to close the cover tightly after they were finished playing.
Play-Doh was first demonstrated and sold at Woodward and Lothop Department Stores in Washington D.C. and distributed by Rainbow Crafts of Cincinnati, OH. It came in a half-pound can and was sold in only one color: off-white. Later, as the product gained popularity, it was reintroduced in three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. While the expanded pallete of colors was certainly welcomed, it also presented another lesson for kids to learn the hard way; once you mix the different colors together, they cannot be unmixed. Still, this didn’t deter anyone from their beloved Play-Doh. As of today, over 900 million pounds of the stuff has been sold.
In 1960, Play-Doh introduced their beret-wearing, “Play-Doh Pete”, who, to this day remains their faithful mascot. They also began to introduce a long line of toy contraptions to help one better realize their artistic visions. The “Fun Factory allowed you to mush your Play-Doh through a plastic grid, which created various shapes including: stars, squares, and tubes. For all of the aspiring barbers out there, Play-Doh also introduced the “Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop”, where one could give a PlayDoh family a full head of colorful Play-Doh hair, then style or chop it to their hearts desire. Later additions to the Play-Doh line included the “Dr Drill and Fill” dentistry kit, where you could create Play-Doh fillings and crowns and place them in a head that opened wide enough to reveal some very neglected plastic teeth. Or if the culinary arts were more your style, you could be the proud owner of a “Bakery and Chef’s Oven”, “Pizza Party and Sandwich Shop”, or “Ice Cream Truck”. Play-Doh had all of the bases covered.
The 1980’s and 90’s saw the line expand even further to include 4 new modern colors, as well as glow-in-the-dark and glitter versions. The cardboard containers were replaced with plastic ones and new scents were even offered (as blasphemous as that might seem). Play-Doh even made its way into the gaming world with an interactive CD-ROM game called “Play-Doh Creations” which allowed you to virtually sculpt your Play-Doh.
Play-Doh has been acquired a number of times over the years, starting in 1965, when General Mills purchased the Rainbow Crafts Company. Later, in 1971, Kenner Toys merged with Rainbow Crafts and in 1987, the Tonka Corporation purchased both Kenner and Rainbow Crafts. Finally, in 1991, Hasbro purchased Tonka and Play-Doh became part of the “Playskool” division.
It seems that Play-Doh will remain ever popular, probably because it is one of those toys that allows you to call upon your imagination and create as many permutations to a lump of modeling goo as your artistic heart desires. And should you be someone who has contemplated purchasing a can for old times sake, merely to suck a breath of the familiar scent into your lungs (which is the result of a petroleum additive to prevent drying, in case you were curious), you now have another option. For its 50th birthday in 2006, Play-Doh began marketing a perfume spray, available in 1oz. bottles and distributed through Perpetual Kid and Demeter retailers. A whiff of your childhood is only a spritz away and it is sure to be a conversation starter at any social gathering. Be sure to wear it on September 18th, which is, of course, National Play-Doh Day.
Now that you’ve learned all there is to know about Play-Doh, let’s hear those fond recollections from childhood. Tell us all about your colorful creations in our comments section. And if your memory needs some assistance, head over to the nearest toy store, pick up a can, pop it open and take a whiff. Those memories will flood back in abundance.