Plato vs. Play-Doh

By | October 2, 2015

Sometimes Wikipedia can be a source of inadvertent amusement, and as much as I miss print encyclopedias, you’d be hard-pressed to get this kind of entertainment out of Britannica. For example, if you go to the Wikipedia page for Play-Doh, you get this at the top:

This article is about the children’s modeling material. For the ancient Greek philosopher, see Plato.

It’s a fine line, I know.

It would be fitting if anyone ever sculpted Plato out of Play-Doh. (And if you’ve seen carved busts of Plato, you know he had a pretty substantial beard, making him a prime candidate for the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop, a popular toy in my youth, and whilst I don’t think I ever actually owned one, just saying the name alone was enough to get my friends to shoot milk from their noses.)

Silliness aside, Plato of course was one of the most important figures in the history of human civilization, the center of three generations of important thinkers. His teacher was Socrates, his student Aristotle, and if you suddenly find yourself singing Monty Python’s “Philosophers’ Song,” you are not alone. Anyway, Alfred North Whitehead once famously wrote, “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Despite the fact that a fair amount of Plato’s writing has survived to the present day, very little is known of his early life—not even his real name. There is some evidence that suggests that he was born Aristocles, after—supposedly—his grandfather. Trouble is, near as anyone can tell, the only Aristocles on record has no direct connection to Plato’s family. As for the name “Plato,” which is the name he wrote under, where it came from is also open to debate. Some historians say that his wrestling coach dubbed him Platon (“broad,” as he was a big guy, something you look for in a wrestler), others that he himself took his name from platytēs (“breadth,” as in the breadth of his eloquence, if not his humility), and others still that someone unknown started calling him platys (“wide,” in that he had a big forehead). Who knows? Maybe someone even did name him after Play-Doh, for—I don’t know—an easily molded, non-toxic mind.

Adds Wikipedia: “one story…suggests Plato died in his bed, whilst a young Thracian girl played the flute to him.” I’ll bet it was only a Platonic relationship.

We give a great deal of credit to these early thinkers, and for good reason, although they sometimes fell a bit short when it came to empirically proving certain assertions. For example, Aristotle was known to insist that women had fewer teeth than men, which you’d think could be pretty easily disproven, if by one else than Mrs. Aristotle.

Forgive the simplified timeline, but the Golden Age of Ancient Greece was superseded by the Roman Empire, and the fall of Rome marked the beginning of what we know of as the Middle Ages, sometimes called—unfairly, I think—the Dark Ages. It was the Italian scholar Petrarch who, in the 1330s, came up with the idea of referring to the period after the fall of Rome as a time of cultural and economic “darkness,” certainly when compared to the “light” of the golden years. (The phrase “Dark Age” itself—saeculum obscurum—was coined by Caesar Baronius in 1602.)

Granted, with the coming of the plague in the Middle Ages, things certainly became rather grim, and it certainly seemed like a bit of a dark age.

There were a number of factors that led Europe out of the darkness and into the light of what would later be dubbed the Renaissance. (By the way, the first significant use of the term “Renaissance” was by French historian Jules Michelet in 1858.)

(It should also be noted that there was more than one “Renaissance”; although we usually associate that term with the period from the 14th to the 17th centuries, there was an earlier “Renaissance” in the 12th century, also referred to as the High Middle Ages.)

One of the biggest contributing factors to the “rebirth” of art, science, and philosophy was the advent of printing in the 1450s. Printing made the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans widely available, as the Renaissance can be characterized by nothing so much as a rediscovery of antiquity, and Renaissance thinkers and artists picked up where the ancients left off, thanks largely to readily available books.

We usually associate the Renaissance with Italy—Florence in particular—but rebirthings were happening all over Europe. From Italy, the new art and culture migrated north, and the 15th and 16th centuries saw a German Renaissance. One of the biggest names of the German Renaissance—at least in terms of painting—was Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Dürer was born in Nuremberg, the son of a successful goldsmith (although the name “Dürer” derives from a translation of a Hungarian word for “doormaker”). His godfather, Anton Koberger, was the most successful printer and publisher in Germany, owning 24 presses and having offices throughout Germany and Europe. Koberger is perhaps most famous for the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493. Although it sounds like a newspaper, it was actually a lavish story of civilization based on the Bible. It contained more than 1,800 woodcut illustrations produced by the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg’s most prominent printmaker and painter. It is believed that young Albrecht worked on at least some of these illustrations, as he had been a student of Wolgemut’s at the time.

Dürer became a dab hand at all manner of artforms—woodcuts, etchings, oil paintings, watercolors, you name it. Dürer also was known for making wallpaper. A type of printmaking, wallpaper began to be fashionable in the 15th and 16th centuries, superseding the handwoven tapestries that had for centuries been used not only for décor but also for insulation. Tapestries were far too expensive for anyone but the upper classes to afford, so paper-based wall prints—while not as insulating as cloth wallcoverings—were a good substitute and added a little je ne sais quoi to your average fashionable hovel. The prints were pasted onto the walls, and often comprised several smaller prints that were tiled, much in the way that wide-format prints are tiled today.

Dürer is known to have made a number of these, including one commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I: The Triumphal Arch. It was a woodcut that measured 116 x 141 inches and was printed on 36 sheets of paper from 195 separate wood blocks. Designed to be affixed to walls in city halls or palaces, it was one of the largest prints ever made up to that time. (Dürer also produced three more “superwide-format” prints for Maximilian.)

Wallpaper has evolved over the years as printing technologies have evolved, and like any kind of fashion, has waxed and waned in popularity. In Britain in 1712, under Queen Anne, a wallpaper tax was levied (one penny per square yard, rising to one shilling per square yard by 1809), which lasted until 1836. Today, digitally printed wallcoverings and décor are becoming popular.

If you have wallpaper, you know very well that it needs to be cleaned every now and then. One company that manufactured a wallpaper cleaner was founded in 1912. Kutol Products Company of Cincinnati produced (and still produces) a wide variety of personal and industrial soaps, sanitizers, washes, and cleaners. In the 1930s, one of Kutol’s employees was Noah McVicker who, at the request of Kroger Grocery, developed a material that could remove coal residue from wallpaper. What he came up with was a cleaning putty consisting of flour, water, salt, boric acid, and mineral oil. It was quite successful for a time, but after World War II, the combination of a decline in coal heating as well as the emergence of easier-to-clean vinyl wallpaper killed the market for the putty—at least as a cleaner.

McVicker noticed, however, that schoolchildren were using the wallpaper cleaning putty as a modeling compound to make Christmas ornaments. The clay lightbulb went off over McVicker’s head and he, with his nephew Joe, began selling the putty as Rainbow Modeling Compound. Originally available only in white (other colors of the rainbow would be added shortly), the McVickers test-marketed the material in schools and kindergartens, and in 1956 founded the Rainbow Crafts Company to make and sell what they now called “Play-Doh.” It was a massive hit. More than two billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold (and much of them probably eaten) since 1955, and the material has become one of the most successful children’s products in the history of toys.

And that’s how you get from Plato to Play-Doh.



“Fascinating facts about the invention of Play-Doh,” The Great Idea Finder,

“Play-Doh Was Originally Wallpaper Cleaner,” Today I Found Out, November 12, 2011,

“Albrecht Dürer,” Wkipedia, modified on September 22, 2015, retrieved September 30, 2015,ürer.

“Plato,” Wikipedia, modified on September 5, 2015, retrieved September 30, 2015,

“Play-Doh,” Wikipedia, modified on September 26, 2015, retrieved September 30, 2015,,

“Wallpaper,” Wikipedia, modified on August 17, 2015, retrieved September 30, 2015,

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One thought on “Plato vs. Play-Doh

  1. Damon Lincourt

    Reminds me why I studied the liberal arts in the first place–to wander freely wherever curiosity and imagination might take me. Thank you.

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