From dough to Play Doh: Learning innovation from this story of "repurposing"
Updated: Aug 10
By Ranjani Krishnakumar
As a child, did you have toys without which playtime might as well have been nap time? Remote-controlled cars, Lego, the ever-smiling Barbie doll, and colourful clay would have figured on the list for most of us. While each of these products have their own stories, the mouldable clay — Play Doh — has an especially qurious one of innovation through repurposing.
In the beginning, Play Doh was actually ‘Kutol Wall Cleaner: Non-Crumbly Type’
Tim Walsh, in the book ‘Timeless Toys’ tell us the fascinating story of this cleaning product.
Until about 1950, coal furnaces were used to heat homes in the United States. The soot from these furnaces darkened the wallpaper. Therefore, homemakers spent a lot of time cleaning them. They made up a concoction of all-purpose flour (maida, if you’re Indian), water, salt and borax (a common ingredient used in cleaning solutions). They rolled the dough up and down the wallpaper to wipe off the soot. But, it was quite the workout!
Spotting an opportunity, the grocery giant Kroger asked Cleo McVicker, an employee of the soap company Kutol Products for a premixed version of the dough to sell on their shelves. A little adventure and experimentation later, the McVickers formulated, manufactured and brought the Kutol Wall Cleaner to market.
But that’s not the success story.
As it can happen with products — think of floppy disks or the Walkman — the need for a wall paper cleaner soon faded. Coal furnaces were replaced by gas ones. Walls were no longer stained with soot. Kutol Wall Cleaner became obsolete. To say nothing of the new vinyl wallpapers that could be be washed with soap and water changing the game altogether.
Slowly, Kutol began to decline. After Cleo’s death, his son Joe took over the revival of the company, but couldn’t help it much. That was until Joe’s sister-in-law, Kay, spotted a magazine article about making Christmas ornaments with the mouldable wall cleaner.
She realised that the kids at her nursery also loved manipulating the dough and got the idea of selling the wall cleaner as a kids’ toy! It is that spark that still sells over 95 million cases in 75 countries around the world.
Encouraged by the popularity of the original single off-white compound, Joe developed the product in red, blue and yellow, and changed the company’s name to ‘Rainbow Crafts’ — because kids could make “any colour in the rainbow” by mixing the primary colours. Play Doh was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998 and shows no sign of becoming obsolete to this day.
Repurposing something into another that is saleable and profitable is a common way in which businesses innovate
Contrary to popular belief that ‘repurposing’ often results in vain imitations or a reduction in value, Kutol Wall Cleaner’s repurposing into Play Doh not only revived the company, but also brought joy to millions of children. Today, kids learn shapes, sizes and even empathy using clay. This feature by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s CBC Radio has many examples as repurposing as innovation.
The world economic forum identifies ‘innovation’ as a new organization role that will grow to replace many redundant jobs. As the world is volatile and fast-moving, the ability to innovate will be a key skill. To see how your kids can learn innovation, explore QShala’s tailor-made programs for different age groups.
So! What is the product that is meant for one purpose that you use for something completely different? Tell us your repurposing stories in the comments.