How Duck Tape Became Famous

If you hack things in the real world, you probably have one or more rolls of duck tape. Outside of the cute brand name, many people think that duck tape is a malapropism, but in truth it is the type of cloth traditionally used in our favorite tape: cotton duck. However, as we’ll see, it’s not entirely wrong to call it duct tape either. Whatever you call it, a cloth material has an adhesive backing and is coated with something like polyethylene.

Actually, the original duck tape wasn’t adhesive at all. It was simply strips of cotton duck used for several purposes, including making shoes and wrapping steel cables like the ones placed in 1902 at the Manhattan Bridge. By 1910, the tape was made with adhesive on one side and soaked in rubber, found use in hospitals for binding wounds. In May 1930, Popular Mechanics advised melting rubber from an old tire and adding rosin to create a compound to coat cotton tape, among other things.

Duck Tape Needed a Champion

In case you’ve lived in a cave most of your life, here’s the kind of tape we are talking about. (“Duck Tape” by Evan-Amos.)

Duck tape didn’t get really famous, though, until World War II. It came down to a worker at an ammunition plant in Dixon, Illinois, named Vesta Stoudt. Her job was to pack ammunition boxes, and she realized that how they were sealed would make it difficult for soldiers to open them rapidly.

She devised a cloth tape seal with a tab that would seal the boxes adequately but come off rapidly when needed. She showed it to her management and government inspectors, but nothing came of it.

Some people might have just let it drop, but not Vesta. She went to the top, writing President Roosevelt a letter in 1943. The president passed it along to the Ordnance Department of the War Production Board. They wrote Vesta back in a few weeks to inform her they loved the idea and thought it had “exceptional merit.”

Vesta received the War Worker’s Award for her idea, and Revolite — part of Johnson and Johnson —  was tasked to make a suitable cotton tape sealant. Duck tape, as we know it, was born.

It Really Stuck

Once it made its mark on ammo boxes, it was soon standard issue to repair military gear. Returning home, the soldiers wanted more duck tape to do home repairs, so it became a popular hardware store item. The Melvin A. Anderson company acquired the rights in 1950 and made a silver version and marketed it for wrapping ducts — duck tape as a duct tape. (Although ironically, modern science has shown that it’s basically the only thing that you shouldn’t use for that purpose.)

By 1971, the company had been sold and became Manco, and it has since gone through several other ownership changes, but it now controls about 40% of the duck tape market in the United States.

Modern tape isn’t necessarily made of cotton. Some use polyester, nylon, rayon, or fiberglass. A very thin bit of fabric laminates to low-density polyethylene. Powdered aluminum gives the tape the classic gray color, but other pigments also make colorful versions. If you want to see how it is made, check out the [Insider] video below.

Most rolls are hand-held size, but in 2005 Henkel  — the owner of what had been Manco at the time — produced 64-inch rolls that weighed 650 pounds!

Starting with early Gemini missions, every NASA spaceflight carries some duck tape. It found use in fixing the oxygen situation during Apollo 13 and repaired a rover fender on Apollo 17.

While it doesn’t sound like Vesta was recognized as an engineer, we will recognize her as a fellow hacker. She saw something that could be made better, and she made it better. Then she made sure that better technology would get out in the field. If it weren’t for Vesta Stoudt, duck tape might not be the ubiquitous commodity it is today. You have to wonder what would take its place.

(Banner image: “Duck Tape” by Mike Mozart.)



81 thoughts on “How Duck Tape Became Famous

  1. I asked an astronaut I know who convinced NASA it was worth the weight penalty to carry ‘grey tape’ and he had no idea. The original justification seems to have been lost in time.

    1. Yeah well it was the correct decision! And I believe that was the famous aerospace engineer Dr. Stephen Grey, inventor of Grey tape. Totally ripped off and done dirty by the scoundrel Sir William Duck.

    2. As a private pilot,,, I learned ”never take off with out some duck tape.. used it in KOSH on the tent and over the gas caps to stop rain getting into the tanks

      1. I worked for a glider pilot for a couple of summers. He used, not duck tape, but vinyl tape over the wing root joints (the wings came off his glider for trailering). Duck tape leaves a nasty residue if left on too long or in hot temps.

        1. Turns out the wing roots are very, very sensitive to turbulent airflow for drag so it’s really common to use electrical tape to seal up that little seam. Well, very common during races but as you say the wings come off so taping and un taping every time you fly the glider is a drag (ha!) so most of us don’t regularly do it.

    1. I HATE tesa tape. Brrr. that stuff gums up, leaves residu everywere, does not tear nicely. Here in the Netherlands it is forbidden to use it on a video or movie shoot. The only allowed brands are Advance and Nichiban. stick it to something. come back 3 years later and remove it without residue or cleaning afterwards . Thats what i call a good tape.

      1. I’ve used tape like that on temporary camera installations.

        We started out with duct tape but that left a lot of residue on the cables so we bought proper gaffers tape and boy what a difference.

        Costs more than 5 times as much but leaves no residue at all when removed. Well worth the price, can’t remember the name though.

  2. “You need only two tools: WD-40 and Duct Tape: if it doesn’t move and it should, use WD-40; if it moves and shouldn’t, use the duct tape.” – Red Green (Canadian Comedian and member of the Possum Lodge)

    1. Red Green was the character, Steve Smith was the actor. And he was president of the Possum Lodge.

      “The question is, can you do anything with crap? Obviously the answer is yes, we’re in our fourteenth season.”

  3. I heard a lecture at an historical/archaeological seminar about ducttape. It posed the suggestion that the “duck” came from the Dutch word “doek” which means cloths. This would make sense as many Dutch immigrants were sailors and sails are made from cloth.

    I found it an interesting hypothesis.

    1. Zeildoek for “sail canvas” or “sail duck”. Yep, that’s very obvious and seems to be the accepted etymology.

      There’s also another theory which claims that the word “duck” is based on the Afrikaans word “doek”. Afrikaans is not Dutch, but a derivate of two languages: Cape Dutch and Hottentot Dutch. Sounds all very Dutch to me.

    2. Correct. It was actually spelled doeck back then. Dutch sailors used clotch with special glue on it, which they could prepare on the ship, to fix the sails. It was pretty much just strips of clotch which they glued on.

    1. In 1993 we (from Europe) toured the USA in a campervan when a siding panel blew off in the hot Arizona desert. A passing trucker gave us our roll of “200 mile an hour tape” which not only held the siding in the 50°C desert, but also made very nice striping and rebranding of the camper from “GO vacations” to “NO vacations”. The rental agency actually liked our work.

    2. At this year’s LeMans race there was an Aston Martin GT going round with a large patch of duck tape holding the front bodywork together, heard on the Radio LeMans commentary:

      “They call it 100mph tape in the pits – unfortunately these cars can do 180mph”

    3. There’s also “speed tape” which is used for ad-hoc exterior fixes of aircraft. Occasionally, passengers get worried when they witness repair crews repairing their aircraft with “duck tape”.
      It’s hideously expensive, certified for temporary repair of aircraft, hideously expensive, used by the military to cover bullet holes, hideously expensive and it’s also sees use in car racing. Expect to pay several 1000s of dollars per roll.

      1. Same here. This article just leaves me more confused.

        We have duct tape, used for joining HVAC ducts after stapling them. It is smooth and stretches slightly.

        We also have cloth tape, which is similar to duct tape, but has a fibre grid in the layers. It tears off easily as needed.

        Both are commonly used for quick repairs, depending on the situation.

        I think this might be another case of USA vs the world. Just like parmi in Australia vs the USA. One is a delicious pub meal, and the other is a wet sandwich.

  4. I need citations, the bridge article didn’t use the word tape, so while it could go to part of telling a story, without the rest of the story, it is just the authors opinion. I realize many things we believe to be true today are utterly false but “make sense” (like the chevy nova story), but we need actual citations if we’re going to post an ackchyually article and have it taken seriously.

    1. Did you read the article in the 1902 Brooklyn Daily Eagle linked? The diagram clearly shows it and the ext says: “Each cable shall receive an additional coating of … and then be wrapped between each pair of adjacent cable bundle with 7 ounces cotton duck prepared by cutting it into strips about 7 inches in width then filled and coated with the waterproof material herein specified.”

      The point is this: duck tape — or strips if you want to be pedantic — were in use before what would become famous as duck/duct tape existed. Hardly fake news.

      1. I see no mention of duck tape, or that being the basis for the modern stuff. That seems like a leap to me. I see cotton duck cloth, no mention of adhesive, no mention of purpose matching tape, just a means of protecting steel cables. So its a pretty huge leap from 1902 wrapping steel cable with duck cloth to the modern tape. I need some intermediate information. I’d also like to see the first mention of the term duck tape. Not just a this appears to possibly be a predecessor.

    2. I would opine that what most people think of as duck tape, silver-grey aluminized cloth tape, was specifically made for ducts due to the silver coloring. It is in this configuration that it became ubiquitous as before it was most often just called cloth tape. Duck tape that predates that was natural off-white or covered in various shades of rubber and doesn’t appear to have been called tape at all in the linked article.

      Honestly, who cares though? They sound similar enough that you could call it either one and people still know what you’re talking about. And unless you emphasize the ending consonant the audience won’t know or care which name you used.

    1. Gaffer tape is very similar but has a easier to remove adhesive that is also more heat resistant. In addition, gaffer tape is always made with cloth, as far as I know, whereas modern duck tape isn’t really made with cloth anymore, but with polymer meshes, as mentioned in the post.

      1. Gaff is also genrally matt, so as to not reflect light…but also available in a variety of fluorescent colours so it’s visible under UV, for demarking (e.g. edges of a stage) or spiking (indicating where moveable objects should be repositioned).

  5. Well the duct tape here we use is very suitable for duct work so it must be different to the one used in the scientific tests. It is also known as 100mph tape and used in the pits at motor races to make fast repairs to damaged fenders and panels. It’s strong and sticky and we have a saying here “you can fix anything with a bit of duct tape and fence wire”.

  6. Once upon a time, I was working on a project with United Ramp Operations at O’Hare.
    They had a tape that I wish I had written down the mfgr and Product Number.
    It used “real” cloth, had a waterproof outside layer, and a thick rubbery adhesive.
    It would put “Gorilla Tape” to shame.

  7. I remember duct tape when it was super thick and rubbery not “duck tape brand” garbage sold at Walmart in neon pink camo flavor and couldn’t stick to a cardboard box

    OG duct tape would rip skin off your hands … the new stuff can’t hold a sheet of paper to a table

  8. The long running radio program “A Prairie Home Companion” on public radio had fake sponsors. One of the best was for (sound FX quack quack) “duck tape it’s what keeps America together” and played in a skit involving it’s use. It ran for years till they got a letter from Manco. Two quacks signifies it’s impending use.

  9. The duck brand may be famous in the USA, but not so much in other countries. I remember hearing it referred to in a movie and had no idea what it was. Here in the UK this sort of fabric tape.was more widely known as gaffer tape. Some times called duct tape, but duck is just one of many brands that has no real significant market dominance like it has in the USA.

  10. In German it’s often/mostly called “Panzerband” = “tank tape”.
    Some advantages:
    1. no animals (ducks) or tubes (duckts) anywhere. ;-)
    2. has an R and a Z so you can reallllly use the German cliché speak with rolled R and harsh Z (the P at the start helps there too). :-P

    Just imagining “Wollt ihr das totale Panzerband” makes me chuckle – maybe not politically correct but still. :-)

  11. When my Dad was in the Navy he used tons of duct tape. He said the gray is rated for 100mph and the black tape is rated for 200mph. Government duct tape is much stronger then the tape you can buy in the store. However it leaves a bunch of glue residue. Had an old ammo can my dad labeled with some duct tape and had to of been on there for 20 years. Had to really heat it up and it was a mess. The new duct tape label I put on there lasted a week.

  12. “fixing the oxygen situation during Apollo 13”

    Actually, it was an excessive CO2 issue. They rigged up a cubical Command Module CO2 scrubber to replace the expended cylindrical Lunar Module one.

  13. At the national lab I used to work at, the story goes that we had a preponderance of rolls of yellow duck tape for use in tests and experiments, among other uses. Supposedly, it was yellow to deter workers from taking it home and using it to seal up their swamp (evaporative) coolers. The other part of the story is the claim that nuclear fallout from above-ground testing was due to the use of yellow duck tape on the ‘test articles’.

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