Monday is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, with each Monday featuring a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). They’ll eventually repeat, but for now, we’re still on the initial installments of each of the various “Grab Bag” legends!
This is the first in a series of examinations of toy legends and whether they are true or false.
TOY LEGEND: Play-Doh was created as and originally produced as wallpaper cleaner!
It’s often fascinating to look back at every day life in, say, 1940, and see just how many products that were in use at the time that are not only not used today, but to describe the product today would leave people puzzled at how such a product could ever be considered a “household” product.
One such product is wallpaper cleaner.
You see, back in the days when homes were often heated by coal furnaces, the soot from the coal would cover most of the house. For most of the stuff in the house, while that was inconvenient, it was not a major deal, as you would just dust the soot off or otherwise wash it off. However, with wallpapers, you were in trouble because you could not wash it off, since it was, you know, paper. So people came up with home remedies including mixing flour, salt, water and some chemicals to roll up and down the wall to take off the soot.
Soon, companies were producing this themselves.
One such company was Kutol Products, which was a soap company out of Cincinatti that almost went under until a young man named Cleo McVicker turned it around in 1927. First, he brought his brother Noah into to run the company while he toured the country pushing their soap product. But the real turnaround came in 1933 when McVicker came up with the idea of turning the company into a discount wallpaper cleaner company.
Kutol Products wallpaper cleaner sold decently for a number of years, and the company even managed to survive McVicker’s death in 1949. His son, Joseph, joined his uncle Noah in running the company.
However, in the early 1950s, a couple of major things changed the world of wallpaper cleaner, making it the utterly obsolete product that it is today.
1. Oil and gas heat came into play, so that coal furnaces were no longer a problem.
2. Vinyl wallpaper was introduced, which took away the whole “can’t wash the wallpaper” problem.
So now Kotul Products had a product that was more or less unsellable, a point made clear during the Winter of 1954 when sales were practically nil (Winter was the time when sales were usually at their peak, with stores making their orders for the spring cleaning season).
As their plight was quite clear to everyone around them, Joseph’s sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, came up with an idea to help her brother-in-law’s business. Kay was a nursery school teacher and she was reading an article about homemade Christmas decorations. It occurred to her that Kotul wallpaper cleaner could be used as a clay-like substance.
She bought a can and brought it to her school and after a day of arts and crafts with the youngsters, she notified Joseph that the product could definitely work as a toy. The cleaner was non-toxic and it was specifically designed NOT to stain (unlike most clays), so all they had to do was take out the cleaning chemicals and you had a brand new type of clay!
Soon, Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound (quickly renamed Play-Doh, also due to advice from Kay – wow, that lady sure helped them out a lot!) was put on the market in 1955, in the following canned format.
Joe McVicker brought it to an education convention in 1956, the same year they introduced a three-pack (of smaller cans, each one a different color), and, well, the rest is history!
Thanks to Tim Walsh and his excellent resource book, Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them for information. You can purchase the book at the preceding link.
TOY LEGEND: John Tyler was playing marbles when he was informed that President Harrison had died and Tyler was now President.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
Marbles have been a popular game for centuries, possibly even in the time of Ancient Egypt (marbles existed back then, but I am unsure if they were used as a game – I know by the time of the Roman Empire, the game of marbles existed).
Marbles were little glass balls (nowadays ceramic marbles are used) that were used to play a game (in the most popular version of marbles, known as “ringer) that involved drawing a circle in sand and then players would take turns knocking other players’ marbles out of the circle with their own marble.
But how does this involve John Tyler?
John Tyler was the running mate for William Henry Harrison in the famous 1840 United States Presidential Election that involved the famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” slogan (Harrison was known as a war hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, where U.S. forces in the Indiana Territory under the leadership of Harrison launched a pre-emptive strike on the American Indian Indian confederation led by Tecumseh – Harrison’s forces were victorious, although the highly outnumbered Tecumseh’s group). The pair were elected, defeating incumbent President Martin Van Buren (only the third sitting President to be defeated in a general election).
Tyler instantly became a major part of United States history when, after just a month in office, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia. For the first time in U.S. history, a sitting President was dead. Unlike today, the country was not exactly sure how to proceed, as the Constitution only says:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.
So the question was – do just the DUTIES devolve to the Vice-President, or does the Vice-President BECOME the President?
Ultimately, it was the latter, but for a period in time, there was actual uncertainty as to what would happen with the Presidency.
In any event, a popular legend involving John Tyler is what he was doing when he was notified that Harrison was dead.
Just from a sampling of the internet…
Tyler was playing marbles when he learned that he was to be President.
He was on his knees playing marbles when informed that he had become president upon the death of Harrison.
So, is it true?
Most likely, no, it is not.
Edward Crapol, most likely the world’s leading expert on John Tyler, pretty much debunks the legend in his recent biography on Tyler.
Another tale about that momentous day, delightful for its rustic simplicity and republican innocence, had the fifty-one-year-old aristocratic Virginian playing marbles with his sons in front of his home when the young Webster (the son of the Secretary of State who notified Tyler of Harrison’s death) arrived from Washington.
Tyler initially may have been startled by the dispatch from Harrison’s cabinet announcing the president’s death, but surely the marbles tale is apocryphal. It surfaced decades later in the early twentieth century, long after the principal parties involved had died, in a breezy and unreliable collection of personal reminiscences about former presidents.
That’s Crapol’s take, which I think in and of itself is pretty convincing.
However, on top of that, the United State Senate’s official history of Tyler also has the notification taking place at dawn (which is where most other historical records has it taking place).
On top of THAT, here is a cartoon from 1888 depicting Tyler’s notification of Harrison’s death.
As you can see, as Carpol notes, the marbles story was not even part of the popular knowledge during the 19th Century.
So since no one has ever seen a source for the marbles story, all other records say otherwise, and, as Carpol notes, it just plain ol’ doesn’t seem likely, I’m going with it being a false story introduced to add some color to Tyler’s history.
Thanks, of course, to Edward Crapol and his book, John Tyler, the Accidental President. Click on the link to purchase it!
TOY LEGEND: Mr. Potato Head quite nearly was “doomed” to simply being a cereal giveaway.
In 1949, a toy developer named George Lerner came up with an idea that would go on to become one of the most popular toys of all-time. But in 1949, Lerner’s idea for a “funny face” kit where children could dress up potatoes or other vegetables with eyes, ears, a mouth, hats, etc. was not a particularly popular one.
Lerner was turned down by every toy company out there, even a company that Lerner had worked for during the war! The prevailing theory is that in the post-World War II environment, rationing was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so “wasting” vegetables and potatoes like that was almost blasphemous.
Ultimately, Lerner determined that he could not sell the idea as a toy, so he settled for selling the idea to a food company, who were going to include the parts as giveaways in their cereal (you know, “In each box of Wheat-Os, you get eyes, ears and a hat (or whatever)! Collect all fifty parts!”).
Lerner was paid $5,000 for the rights to the idea (a tidy sum for 1950/51).
He did not stop shopping the idea, though (as until the cereal company began using it, he was hoping to still get someone who wanted the idea for a toy), and in 1951, he convinced two brothers that the idea was a winner.
Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld ran their family’s Rhode Island textile factory. By the 1950s, they had evolved to begin producing pencil boxes. They noticed that when they put stuff into the boxes and sold them furnished, the boxes sold better. They soon decided to sell OTHER items in the boxes, like kits for children. You know, like a “Nurse Kit,” where the box would have dress-up stuff for a kid to play nurse.
Well, when Lerner approached them about using his “funny face” idea in one of their kits, they really liked the idea.
They liked it so much that they bought the idea back from the cereal company for $5,000, plus an additional $2,000 for the cereal company’s troubles.
They then paid Lerner $500 plus a 5% royalty for each kit sold.
Finally, they needed a name for the “funny face” kit. They figured potatoes would be the most popular food item to be used with the kit, so they came up with Mr. Potato Head.
Within a year’s time, a million kits had sold!
Oh, by the way, the brothers, Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld? You might know them better as the Hassenfield Brothers. Or better yet, Hasbro.
Thanks to Dennis Martin and his awesome Mr. Potato Head site (click here to visit) for the information!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments, particularly other themes for future grab bags! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org