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YOU KNOW YOU'RE OLD WHEN...

by Rose-Mary Rumbley


You know you're old when you can recall the smell of PLAY-Doh! The "Modeling Compound" as it was labeled, sold in the last 65 years, more than 2 billion cans since it was first introduced on the shelves of Woodward and Lothrop Department Store in Washington, D.C.

Hasbro, the toy company that made the magic stuff estimates that if you were to put all that compound through a Fun Factory play set, you would extrude a snake that could wrap around the earth 300 times! That's a lot of Doh!


When I was growing up my mother would give me a wad of pie dough to play with, but my children, the Boomers, were treated to this sophisticated, popular modeling clay, which has an unusual history.


It started out as a cleaning compound for soot-stained walls. The company went broke twice--in the 20s and the 40s. This is when an imaginative nursery school teacher convinced her brother-in-law, the compound maker, to think of his product in a whole new way.

It caught on as Play-Doh, and in the late 50s and 60s demand was so high, Play-Doh was back-ordered for 16 months.


On the toy's 50th anniversary Demeter Fragrance created Play-Doh perfume. I recall that distinctive aroma, which Hasbro described as "the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of a salted, wheat-based dough."


It mattered not how it smelled, it kept kids busy for hours molding various objects. Or, maybe, as my daughter did, she molded it into her toy baking pans, and "baked" it in her little toy oven.


Me--not growing up with Play-Doh, I made "mud pies!" What else? There was a depression on.


Speaking of depression, I recently read a very enlightening story in the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine I take to impress my postman!


This young Chinese girl wrote an article about how Play-Doh inspired her in some creative pursuits and sustained her through the uncertainties of post-academic life and the pandemic.

Jenny Qi is the only child of Chinese immigrants, who told her of their being sent to labor camps because her father was a teacher. All cultural objects were destroyed as being frivolous relics, and a fine education made you an enemy of the state people. Jenny wanted to be an artist, but she had to put away her artistic inclinations and pursue a more "useful" career.


During college, her mother's struggle with cancer prompted her to pursue a Ph. D. in cancer biology. Even though Jenny was making her way with good grades she was suffering from burn out. She felt she was losing something.


At the lowest time of this ordeal, she found two cans of Play-Doh in the back of a desk drawer. She started making little macabre figures out of the compound. Morbid as the figures were, "they brought levity back to my life that I had forgotten." Who knew how meditative it could be to roll clay around in one's palm? "I no longer thought of my long to-do list. Late at night, creating something recognizable out of a shapeless mound of Play-Doh gave me a great sense of satisfaction." She could experience how she had imagined an artisan life!


Jenny spent the next few years trying to incorporate her interests into a career through journalism, podcasting, and assembling the poems that would become her first book.

Play-Doh reminded her of how much she loved making things! She also remembered her mother's teaching--"Life is short!" Yes, "Life is short--so act now!"


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