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Half Hour Prophecy: Don’t Give The Heckler Duct Tape

 

Duct tape, or duck tape, is cloth- or scrim-backed pressure-sensitive tape, often coated with polyethylene. There are a variety of constructions using different backings and adhesives. One variation is black gaffer tape, which is designed to be non-reflective and cleanly removed, unlike standard duct tape. Another variation is heat-resistant foil (not cloth) duct tape useful for sealing heating and cooling ducts, produced because standard duct tape fails quickly when used on heating ducts. Duct tape is generally silvery gray, but also available in other colors and even printed designs.

 

During World War II, Revolite (then a division of Johnson & Johnson) developed an adhesive tape made from a rubber-based adhesive applied to a durable duck cloth backing. This tape resisted water and was used as sealing tape on some ammunition cases during that period.

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.

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.

Featured Music:
Waiting Room by Fugazi
No Right To Know by Funeral Oration
Anything Anything by Dramarama

“There was a word for what he was that nice people didn’t say except in the dirtiest jokes. He knew. Always had. There was no need for more of him. His life was a gross testament to cowardice and repugnance.”

Sam Tallent’s Half Hour Prophecy Ep. 45: Don’t Give The Heckler Duct Tape

Sam Tallent is a comedian and writer from Denver, Colorado. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada with his wife and dog. His interests include Southern Gothic fiction and the “death” of Elvis Presley. He enjoys slow simmered suppers and writing in the third person.sexpot_logo

Audio Mixing by Wally Wallace

Sexpot Comedy Production

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