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Duct Tape: Invented Here!

Margaret on August 11th, 2009 at 5:03PM

It’s strong, it’s sticky, it’s in practically every home, and it’s been used to fix almost everything — from airplane wings to houses to chair legs. It has a fanatical following, people even make clothing out of it, and there’s an annual festival and more than one website dedicated to it. What is it? It’s duct tape, and it was invented by Johnson & Johnson during World War II as a waterproof sealing tape.

permacel-duct-tape

Samples of  Duct Tape from Permacel Tape Reference Book in Our Archives

So why on earth did a company that made sterile dressings, sterile sutures, public health and personal care products invent a product that people use to repair lawn furniture, car mirrors and countless other things? It was a combination of the Company’s long history of making adhesive tapes for wound dressings…and the role played by U.S. companies during World War II.

ZONAS Adhesive Plaster

ZONAS® Adhesive Plaster — an early cloth tape for wound dressings

Adhesive tape (or adhesive plaster, as it was called a very long time ago) is one of the Company’s oldest products, dating back to the late 1800s, and was an outgrowth of our sterile dressings business – doctors and surgeons needed something to keep the sterile dressings in place on the patient. And of course, adhesive tape was one of the two products (the other being gauze) that was used to invent BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages in 1920.

Johnson & Johnson had been making bandages, dressings and other products for the military since the Spanish American War in 1898 and, during World War I, the Company ran its surgical dressing production around the clock seven days a week to meet the needs of soldiers and hospitals. We continued making lifesaving medical products for the military during World War II, but as a routine part of the war effort, the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies was asked to make or develop a variety of products that weren’t part of its usual product lines.

Lumite

LUMITE Plastic Screen Cloth – one of our wartime products developed to screen insects during World War II

With the absence of permanent suppliers of military products as an ongoing industry in the 1940s, and the need for quickly gearing up production, it was standard practice during World War II for U.S. companies to be asked to mobilize to make a variety of products for the war effort: among the wartime products Johnson & Johnson affiliate companies made were gas masks (we still have one in our archives!), parts for airplane landing gear, wing hinges and unwoven cotton camouflage material (from our then-affiliate The Chicopee Manufacturing Company). Given the Company’s long expertise in making adhesive tapes, the military asked Johnson & Johnson to have one of its operating companies make a waterproof, strong cloth based tape that could keep moisture out of ammunition cases.  Here’s what our 1945 Annual Report said:

“In Milltown, New Jersey, the Industrial Tape Corporation plant was one of the largest suppliers of industrial tape for the armed forces. These pressure-sensitive tapes, easy to handle and versatile in use, saved valuable time in manufacturing and packaging war materials. A wide variety of tapes to serve a multitude of particular purposes were made for the aviation industry alone. Actually hundreds of thousands of miles of special waterproof tapes were used on tanks, planes, and ammunition destined for overseas.” [Johnson & Johnson 1945 Annual Report]

1945 Annual Report: taping an airplane

Duct Taping an Airplane!  (From our 1945 Annual Report)

The tape was originally called duck tape, for its water-repelling properties. (Duck…water…get it?) And, as the story goes, the fabric used to make the tape was called cotton duck. Soldiers soon discovered that the tape was incredibly useful in repairing just about anything that needed repair, from jeeps to planes to tents to boots. As time went on, “duck” morphed into “duct” because of its use in the postwar building industry to help connect…you guessed it…ductwork for heating and air conditioning. 

Permacel Catalog - Duct Tape

How duck tape became duct tape:  two men duct taping — what else? — a duct, from a Permacel product catalog in our archives

 

 navy-e-flag-ceremony

Navy E Flag Ceremony

Johnson & Johnson received a Navy “E” Award for its work during World War II, which was an honor given to companies that made a significant contribution to the war effort… a contribution that included duct tape.  The Navy E Flag was proudly displayed at the Company’s facilities in New Brunswick, New Jersey. 

 Permacel exterior 1970

Permacel in 1970

Duct tape was originally made by an affiliate company called the Industrial Tape Corporation, which became Permacel. Its headquarters was one of the familiar “Factories Can be Beautiful” buildings in Central New Jersey. Permacel still exists, but it’s no longer part of the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies: we sold it in 1982.

So the next time you’re fixing that lawn chair or duct-taping the handle of your favorite household tool back together — or perhaps making a duct tape float for the annual duct tape festival parade – you can tell your friends and family that you’re using something  originally invented by Johnson & Johnson for the war effort in 1942.  And stay tuned for my next post about what people used to fix everything BEFORE duct tape…strangely enough, it also came from Johnson & Johnson.

Open Response to Duct Tape: Invented Here!

  1. Thank you for sharing this insightful information about duct tape. My husband is using it now on his planters warts and it seems to be making them disappear. Duct tape has medicinal value, too!

  2. Those of you who worked at ESDP may Jim Morris, who passed away quite some time ago. He was a US Army Ranger before joining J&J and he sometimes spoke of creative uses his squad had for Permacel tapes of every sort. Many of them were surely not what the manufacturer or possibly what Uncle Sam intended.

  3. Duct Tape was a common household word in the 1970′s. Interesting history about duct tape. We used it for everything including halloween costumes. Once we wrapped a person completely in duct tape-Star Wars. J&J? and I thought it was a 3M product.

  4. MR,

    A lot of companies make duct tape now, but it was invented by a Johnson & Johnson operating company. Sounds like a great Halloween costume, by the way!

    Margaret

  5. SUNY Potsdam has a competition where teams are to build boats with cardboard and duct tape to float in the school pool with the team on board. The winner has the boat that floats the longest! There may be other categories in the competition also, eg. originality,etc.

  6. Cool that it’s from J&J. Cooler that ‘duck tape’ is the original name, rather than a misnomer. I’m enough of a pedant to be bothered by the misnomer, especially since I like the name ‘duck tape’ better, anyway.

    Now, where’s Daffy Duck playing with the stuff? Did he ever put his bill (or head) back on with tape, and explain that it was fine, because it was ‘duck tape, of course!’?

  7. Karl,

    As an avid watcher of Bugs Bunny reruns when I was growing up, I don’t remember ever seeing Daffy Duck use duct tape. To my knowledge, he never did use it to reattach his bill, but it would’ve been a great idea!

    Margaret

  8. hi,
    we are doing a project on the history of duct tape and we would like to know if u have any additional information

  9. Eric and Jack,

    I don’t have any more information, but feel free to use the information on the blog for your project. Since this was developed as a wartime product, we don’t have a lot of information on it in our archives.

    Margaret

  10. Duct tape is cloth tape, is it not?

    Regards

    Garvin Timmann – PR International Ltd
    3 Kingley Park, Station Road, Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, WD4 8GW, UK
    Tel: +44 (0) 1923 270508 Fax: +44 (0)1923 269134
    web: http://www.printernational.co.uk skype: printernational
    Co.Reg: 1785226 England/ Wales VAT No: GB 449 4437 21

  11. Garvin,

    Duct tape is indeed a cloth-based tape. Cotton duck cloth was originally used to make the tape, which in part gave rise to the original name, “duck tape.”

    Margaret

  12. I think that duck/duct tape is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century and I’m a woman! They thought white out was great but it had nothing on duck/duct tape. I’m going to start making art projects out of duct tape soon and am seriously considering covering my bathroom floor with it! I know I could make a really nifty shower curtain from it. Though I’m not a big plastic lover, I’m going to design rugs made from plastic store bags and duck/duct tape. I’m also happy to know I can call it duck or duct and be correct, though I was trained by my Father to use what he thought was the proper term, duct.

  13. Hi–I’m updating the Wikipedia entry on Duck Tape (or, as they call it, Duct Tape), and I noticed there’s a discrepancy between this post and the one on Vesta Stoudt. (http://www.kilmerhouse.com/2012/06/the-woman-who-invented-duct-tape/ )

    Ms. Stoudt’s letter to FDR was written in 1943, so if that version of the story is true, the 1942 date given here can’t be right. What date is correct? The 1943 date has better documentation, assuming Ms. Stoudt’s letter really did lead to Permacel’s work on Duck Tape.

  14. Hi Christine,

    The post titled “Duct Tape: Invented Here!” was written in 2009, three years before we had the information from Vesta Stoudt’s great granddaughter. It was written with the best information we had at the time. Since Vesta’s great granddaughter provided us with documentation, I think the 1943 date would be correct. The Johnson & Johnson operating company that made duct tape became Permacel, which was divested — along with its records — several decades ago. Furthermore, since duct tape was originally a wartime product made directly for the military, it’s not listed in the historical price lists in our archives, which didn’t list products of that kind. As a result, we didn’t have a lot of information remaining at Johnson & Johnson regarding the first appearance of duct tape and the 1942 date was in a number of sources, but probably more of a rough estimate based on whatever information existed at that time. We do know that the military asked us to invent the tape, and the newer information fills in the remainder of the story.

    Hope that sheds a bit more light on the confusion! I will add an update to the original post, pointing readers to the new information.

    Margaret

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