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.
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 — 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 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]
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.
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
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 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.