What Is a Duct Tape and Why Is It Called So?
According to etymologist Jan Freeman, the story that duct tape was originally called duck tape is “quack etymology” that has spread “due to the reach of the Internet and the appeal of a good story” but “remains a statement of faith, not fact.” She notes that duct tape is not made from duck cloth and there is no known primary-source evidence that it was originally referred to as duck tape.
Her research does not show any use of the phrase “duck tape” in World War II, and indicates that the earliest documented name for the adhesive product was “duct tape” in 1960. The phrase “duck tape” to refer to an adhesive product does not appear until the 1970s and was not popularized until the 1980s, after the Duck brand became successful and after the New York Times referred to and defined the product under the name “duct tape” in 1973.
Over the years duct tape has become the go-to repair tool of millions of people. Any time you need a flexible, sturdy, and incredibly sticky tape to fix everything from cars and clothing to air ducts and leaky water pipes, just reach for a roll of duct tape. Duct tape was invented by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson during World War II. Their original creation for the United States military was a green waterproof tape that could be used to seal ammunition cases to keep water out.
Soldiers soon learned that the tape was good at fixing any type of rip or tear they might encounter, whether in a tent, a vehicle seat, or a uniform. After the war, the company began to sell the tape to the public, and returning soldiers introduced it to many people back home. One of the first uses for the tape was to repair or seal the ductwork in home heating and cooling systems. To match the color of ductwork, the company changed the color of the tape to silver and began to call it duct tape.
Today, duct tape can be found in many different colors, although the most popular are probably silver and black. Each year, stores sell enough duct tape to wrap around the Earth over 12 times! Duct tape is so strong, because it’s made of three different layers. The bottom layer is a strong rubber-based adhesive. The middle layer is a web of cloth fabric that adds durability. The top layer is soft, waterproof plastic.
Despite its strength, it can be torn easily by hand. This makes it very useful in repairs, since one person can quickly and easily work with the tape without the help of others. But even though it can be torn by hand, it’s still very strong. Some people claim that, if you double duct tape over and stick its adhesive sides together, you could pull a one-ton car out of a ditch!
The first material called “duck tape” was long strips of plain cotton duck cloth used in making shoes stronger, for decoration on clothing, and for wrapping steel cables or electrical conductors to protect them from corrosion or wear. For instance, in 1902, steel cables supporting the Manhattan Bridge were first covered in linseed oil then wrapped in duck tape before being laid in place. In the 1910s, certain boots and shoes used canvas duck fabric for the upper or for the insole, and duck tape was sometimes sewn in for reinforcement.
In 1936, the US-based Insulated Power Cables Engineers Association specified a wrapping of duck tape as one of many methods used to protect rubber-insulated power cables. In 1942, Gimbel’s department store offered venetian blinds that were held together with vertical strips of duck tape. All of these foregoing uses were for plain cotton or linen tape that came without a layer of applied adhesive.
Adhesive tapes of various sorts were in use by the 1910s, including rolls of cloth tape with adhesive coating one side. White adhesive tape made of cloth soaked in rubber and zinc oxide was used in hospitals to bind wounds, but other tapes such as friction tape or electrical tape could be substituted in an emergency. In 1930, the magazine Popular Mechanics described how to make adhesive tape at home using plain cloth tape soaked in a heated liquid mixture of rosin and rubber from inner tubes.
In 1923, Richard Gurley Drew working for 3M invented masking tape, a paper-based tape with a mildly sticky adhesive. In 1925 this became the Scotch brand masking tape. In 1930, Drew developed a transparent tape based on cellophane, called Scotch Tape. This tape was widely used beginning in the Great Depression to repair household items. Author Scott Berkun has written that duct tape is “arguably” a modification of this early success by 3M. However, neither of Drew’s inventions was based on cloth tape.
The idea for what became duct tape came from Vesta Stoudt, an ordnance-factory worker and mother of two Navy sailors, who worried that problems with ammunition box seals would cost soldiers precious time in battle. She wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 with the idea to seal the boxes with a fabric tape, which she had tested at her factory. The letter was forwarded to the War Production Board, who put Johnson & Johnson on the job.
The Revolite division of Johnson & Johnson had made medical adhesive tapes from duck cloth from 1927 and a team headed by Revolite’s Johnny Denoye and Johnson & Johnson’s Bill Gross developed the new adhesive tape, designed to be ripped by hand, not cut with scissors. Their new unnamed product was made of thin cotton duck coated in waterproof polyethylene (plastic) with a layer of rubber-based gray adhesive (branded as “Polycoat”) bonded to one side.
It was easy to apply and remove, and was soon adapted to repair military equipment quickly, including vehicles and weapons. This tape, colored in army-standard matte olive drab, was nicknamed “duck tape” by the soldiers. Various theories have been put forward for the nickname, including the descendant relation to cotton duck fabric, the waterproof characteristics of a duck bird, and even the name of the 1942 amphibious military vehicle DUKW, which was pronounced “duck”.
After the war, the duck tape product was sold in hardware stores for household repairs. The Melvin A. Anderson Company of Cleveland, Ohio, acquired the rights to the tape in 1950. It was commonly used in construction to wrap air ducts. Following this application, the name “duct tape” came into use in the 1950s, along with tape products that were colored silvery gray like tin ductwork. Specialized heat- and cold-resistant tapes were developed for heating and air-conditioning ducts. By 1960 a St. Louis, Missouri, HVAC company, Albert Arno, Inc., trademarked the name “Ductape” for their “flame-resistant” duct tape, capable of holding together at 350–400 °F (177–204 °C).
In 1971, Jack Kahl bought the Anderson firm and renamed it Manco. In 1975, Kahl rebranded the duct tape made by his company. Because the previously used generic term “duck tape” had fallen out of use, he was able to trademark the brand “Duck Tape” and market his product complete with a yellow cartoon duck logo. Manco chose the “Duck” name as “a play on the fact that people often refer to duct tape as ‘duck tape'”, and as a marketing differentiation to stand out against other sellers of duct tape.
In 1979, the Duck Tape marketing plan involved sending out greeting cards with the duck branding, four times a year, to 32,000 hardware managers. This mass of communication combined with colorful, convenient packaging helped Duck Tape become popular. From a near-zero customer base Manco eventually controlled 40% of the duct tape market in the US. In 2009 Duck Tape was sold to Shurtape Technologies, which is owned by the Shuford family of North Carolina.
After profiting from Scotch Tape in the 1930s, 3M produced military materiel during WWII, and by 1946 had developed the first practical vinyl electrical tape. By 1977, the company was selling a heat-resistant duct tape for heating ducts. In the late 1990s, 3M was running a $300 million duct tape division, the US industry leader. In 2004, 3M invented a transparent duct tape.