I’ve read enough books about the invention of everyday objects that I recognized most of the stories in 10 Accidental Discoveries That Generated Great Wealth.
But one surprised me. I had never heard of a company called Kutol or of how it was saved from going out of business by selling wallpaper cleaner. For that matter, I had never heard of wallpaper cleaner. I’ve washed painted walls, but as far as I was concerned, either wallpaper could be cleaned with a wet cloth (if it was the vinyl-coated sort) or it couldn’t be cleaned at all (which is just one more reason to prefer paint to wallpaper).
Of course, I never lived in a home heated by coal. Apparently part of spring cleaning used to be removing the soot that collected on the wallpaper as a result of burning coal for heat. Housewives could make their own wallpaper cleaner, from flour, water, salt, and borax, but there were also commercially available premixed cleaners. A young soap salesman named Cleo McVicker saved a company named Kutol from going out of business by getting a contract to sell wallpaper cleaner to Kroger grocery stores (despite Kutol never having manufactured the product before), and he ended owner of the world’s biggest manufacturer of wallpaper cleaner.
The company hit hard times again when Cleo died in a plane crash, then oil and gas heat replaced coal, and vinyl-coated wallpaper was introduced that could be cleaned with soap and water. Then Joe McVicker, only in his 20’s, found out he was dying of cancer and started undergoing experimental radiation treatment. In the midst of all this, Joe’s sister-in-law got an idea from a magazine to take some wallpaper cleaner to the nursery school she ran. It was nontoxic, easy to mold into different shapes, and it didn’t stain the way clay did.
The children loved it. Kay told her brother-in-law about it, and Cleo’s brother N.W. (who handled formulating the cleaners) modified the product to remove the detergent, replace the odor of solvent with an almond smell, and add colorant. They had been selling the wallpaper cleaner for 34 cents a can, but the modified product flew off the shelves at $1.50 a can. They called it Play-Doh, and the rest, as they say, is history.