The Woman Who Invented Duct Tape

Margaret on June 21st, 2012 at 3:59PM

As readers of Kilmer House — and The Duct Tape Guys’ popular website – know, duct tape was invented by a Johnson & Johnson operating company in response to a request from the U.S. military for a cloth-based, waterproof tape during World War II.  But have you ever wondered why the Army made that request, and who had the original idea for duct tape?  Well, wonder no more, thanks to Kilmer House reader Kari Santo, whose great grandmother Vesta Stoudt had the idea that led to duct tape.

Meet Vesta Stoudt, whose idea led to duct tape! Photo from The Chicago Sunday Tribune, October 24th 1943

In the 1940s, Vesta Stoudt, a mother with two sons serving in the Navy, went to work in the Green River Ordnance Plant between Dixon and Amboy, Illinois to do her part to help her sons and their fellow servicemen.  So Vesta got a job at Green River inspecting and packing cartridges used to launch rifle grenades that were used by soldiers in the Army and Navy.  The cartridges were packed eleven to a box, and the boxes were taped and waxed to make them waterproof and damp-proof.  The box flaps were sealed with thin paper tape, and a tab of tape was left loose so that it could be pulled to release the waterproof wax coating and open the box.  The problem was that the thin paper tape wasn’t strong enough, and the tabs frequently tore off when soldiers pulled on them to open the ammo boxes, leaving them frantically scrambling to claw the boxes open while under enemy fire.  Lives were at risk –including the lives of her sons.  So Vesta Stoudt came up with a solution:  seal the boxes with a strong, cloth-based waterproof tape instead of the thin paper tape.  Vesta raised the issue with her supervisors but, although they thought it was a good idea, she wasn’t getting anywhere with having it implemented.   Here’s what Vesta Stoudt said:

“I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same.  It worked fine, I showed it to different government inspectors they said it was all right, but I could never get them to change tape.”  [Copy of original letter from Vesta Stoudt to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, February 10, 1943, courtesy of Kari Santo]

So Vesta Stoudt did what any other mom with two sons in the Navy would do: she wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlining the issue and telling him her idea about how to fix it.

Letter from Vesta Stoudt to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, February 10, 1943, courtesy of Kari Santo

“Now your son, my son and our neighbor’s son must pull this tape off some way, perhaps with his teeth or his knife if he is lucky enough to have one, nine chance out of ten he hasn’t any.”  [Copy of original letter from Vesta Stoudt to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, February 10, 1943, courtesy of Kari Santo]

Here’s the diagram of the problem that Vesta sketched out in her letter:

Vesta Stoudt's drawing of the ammo box tab issue, from her letter to President Roosevelt.

“I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same.  It worked fine, I showed it to different government inspectors they said it was all right, but I could never get them to change tape.  I have two sons out there some where, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet.  You have sons in the service also.  We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved. Had the box been taped with a strong cloth tape that can be opened in a split second.  I didn’t know who to write to Mr. President, so have written you hoping for your boys, my boys, and every man that uses the rifle grenade, that this package of rifle cartridges may be taped with the correct tape.”  [Copy of original letter from Vesta Stoudt to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Feb. 10, 1943, courtesy of Kari Santo]

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, public domain photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Public Domain Photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Roosevelt sent Vesta’s letter to the War Production Board in Washington, D.C., and just a few weeks later in March, she received a series of replies from higher-ups in the organization saying that her idea would be considered; that it was being forwarded to the appropriate division and they hoped she would send them any other ideas she had in the future; and finally that her recommendation for the new tape had been approved and was “of exceptional merit.”

Letter to Vesta Stoudt, March 26, 1943, from The War Production Board in Washington D.C., letting her know that her idea for duct tape had been approved. Letter courtesy of Kari Santo.

Because of Johnson & Johnson’s long experience making surgical adhesive tapes, the War Production Board asked Johnson & Johnson to make the tape, which was named “Duck Tape” because, as the story goes, it was 1) waterproof, like a duck and 2) it was made with cotton duck fabric.  The tape soon became known as “100 Mile an Hour Tape” in the military and, because it was strong and waterproof, soldiers used it to repair just about everything.  Vesta Stoudt received a letter from President Roosevelt and earned the Chicago Tribune’s War Worker Award for her idea and her persistence.

General Robert Wood Johnson in uniform during his tenure as head of the Smaller War Plants Corporation in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s, from our archives.

General Robert Wood Johnson, who was President of Johnson & Johnson at that time, would have appreciated Vesta Stoudt’s creativity, initiative and refusal to take “no” for an answer in the service of saving lives.  (After all, it was that same motivation that led Johnson’s father and uncles to found Johnson & Johnson in 1886 to make the first mass-produced sterile surgical products to save patients’ lives.)

Duct tape: the result of a mom trying to help her sons -- and everyone else's sons -- during World War II.

Vesta Stoudt showed that one person with an idea can make a difference, and everyone who served – and continues to serve – in the military owes Vesta a lifesaving debt of gratitude.  And for readers who just love duct tape but whose lives don’t depend on it, the next time you’re repairing a lawnchair, the base of a fan (an actual use of duct tape by this blogger!), or making a duct tape wallet or prom dress, take a minute to thank Vesta Stoudt for this indispensable piece of modern life.

And a huge thank you to Vesta’s great granddaughter Kari Santo for sending in her great grandmother’s amazing story to share on the blog.

The Duct Tape Guys also have the story, here.

Open Response to The Woman Who Invented Duct Tape

  1. Keep up the great work on the blog. I loved this story about the duct tape and it makes me so proud to work for J&J. Duct tape is like the Force from Star Wars – it has a light side, a dark side, and it binds the world together. :)

  2. As an inventor this is the coolest thing to me. I am proud of my my wife Kari for putting this all together.

  3. I am so proud of my daughter Kari for bringing Vesta Stoudt the recognition she deserved. Kari took on this project that I would have not had the patience and tenacity for. She did months of research and endured peoples laughs when she said, “I think my great grandmother invented Duct tape.” Kari has obviously inherited Vesta’s ” can do” spirit. I would like to thank Kilmer House for this recognition and Kari for proudly represnting our family.

  4. This is great story showing that just one person with passion, creativity and persistance can make a huge impact.

  5. What a great story! I love the fact that every American felt involved and important to the war effort. We need more of that spirit today!

  6. I have tears in my eyes and a smile across my face…. What a powerful and inspirational read this was to start the day! Knowing the ‘modern day’ Stoudt family, there is no aspect of the story – from Vesta’s determination through to great grand daughter Kari’s persistence and all the family efforts in between, that comes as a surprise. Thanks so much to everyone involved for ensuring that this family ‘tale’ was unveiled and shared for all to enjoy.

  7. WOW. I knew the Stoudt Family always stuck together but now I know why! It’s what they do!! Great to see yet again that it is the man (or woman) in the arena, never giving up, that truly makes the difference. We should all be reminded of this and Vesta after all these years gives us the example. Cheers to the Stoudt family and all who have Vesta’s spirit in their heart.

  8. Great story. As a veteran and a heavy user of 100 mile an hour tape during my many years in the military, I am glad I learned the roots of how it came to be! Such an amazing story on the creativity of a mother trying to help her sons stay safe in combat.

  9. Great story, and great tape!

  10. What an amazing story! Vesta was way ahead of her time and thanks to Kari for sharing this story with us. She is obviously very proud of her incredible great grandmother!

  11. I have just discovered this wonderful blog and, I would like to thank you for the phenomenal job you are doing in reminding us some pivotal pieces of our history. Thank you. Keep going, this is just great.

  12. I really like how this is sorted and it really does help me on my passion project………… THX…….:}

  13. wow who ever put this must have done a lot of research because this answered half of my duct tape report i dont even know you but i thank god for you

  14. Do you sell duct tapes..?

  15. The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies does not sell duct tape. Although we invented the product, the operating company that made it, Permacel, was divested several decades ago.

  16. This is so cool! A simple idea changed so may lives much less it is the staple to every single womans home. One roll of duct tape and a butcher knife! You can fix anything, trim trees, broken bike wheels, pipes you name it. Your tool kit is complete! LOL.

  17. WOW! Vesta is my great grandmother. I loved finding out this amazing fact about her. Thank you.

  18. that is my dad’s mom.i never heard about this until just recently.i remember my grandma baby sitting us kids while my mom and dad went to California to visit my older sister way back.if anyone knows how do do this,i thinkit would be very interesting for the history channel to make some kind of documentary about this.duct tape no doubt saved many American lives during the war.and it is seems that no one really knows about it. very proud grandson.rick stoudt

  19. today i learn another thing thanks to person like her .thanks

  20. Bravo!!! Very well written piece of history and it held my interest from beginning to end.

    Wondering if Mrs. Stoudt received any monetary compensation for her brilliant idea? I know – her reward was ensuring her boys had quick access to ammo. But if the Johnson Family actually made the idea come to fruition, wouldn’t it be great to know that, still, Mrs. Stoudt received even a minor kickback of some sort.

    Girls Rock!

  21. Wow! Not just as a fellow civilian, but also as a woman I beam with pride for Vesta’s incredible, life-saving invention. It is a good thing she went above her bosses’ heads on this, otherwise many of our fathers and grandfathers would not have made it back alive from war.

    From now on I’m going to smile every time I break out my duct tape, now knowing its provenance.

    Thanks, Kari Santo!

  22. I too am an inventor and I can’t find the words to express the words of joy reading this story. God works in strange ways.

  23. Russ C ….. It is 200 MPH Tape , not 100 MPH Tape . Nicknamed that because it was used for emergency repairs on AA/Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars back when they only went 200 MPH .

  24. This is awesome! As a mom of two soldiers, I can relate to what Mrs. Stoudt was feeling! Anything to make life run smoother for our boys! God bless her!

  25. And don’t forget Apolo 13 to the moon. duct tape saved there lives.

  26. I absolutely loved this article and will be sharing this with my family which includes 7 children and 29 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. Our household always had several rolls of “duck tape” in our home and usually twice as much in the garage. One year my husband was unemployed and money was short and we didn’t have extra funds for Halloween costumes for the kids and we wrapped them in the tape with the sticky side out and rolled them in a pile of leaves and they were in the local parade as trees and they won first place. We laugh about that often. Thanks Kari for sharing. It was great hearing about your family history and thanks to Vesta for this awesome tape. We still rely on it for many things.

  27. I’ve been using duck tape for as long as I can remember. Great stuff. Keeps things together. Thanks for getting it to the Army and Navey to help the guys be better with there fighting. Thanks to Johnson and johnson for producing the tape.

  28. 100 M.P.H. tape as it was known by NASCAR people, who used it to make temporary repairs to wrecked race cars in order to keep them in the race.

  29. Another interesting story is Super Glue was originally invented for battlefield surgery.

  30. Interesting history on a useful household item.

  31. Typical male executive! If the idea wasn’t theirs, and from a woman no less, it isn’t any good.

  32. For farmers baling wire was often thought of as the handiest quick repair source until Duct tape came along. In some cases, It is the very best thing to hold things together until final repairs can be made. In the potato growing industry, we use thousands of rolls of Duct tape to hold air and humidity pipes together as we stretch them across the potato storage floors just ahead of carefully piling potatos over them. When time comes to remove the pipes for loading the potatoes out of storage for market, The pipes easily come apart without damaging the pipes or bruising the spuds. Thanks to all .

  33. A fascinating story. What an assertive, gutsy woman who took her idea to the top!

  34. I just used some Duct Tape last weekend for a handy fix for some cushion grips on my bike. Worked great, as usual, Duct Tape is an essential for around the home use and of course love to hear that it was developed during the war by JNJ Vesta Stoudt.

    Great Story !

  35. Great story! It touches on all of my passions: packaging, duct tape, and World War II history!

  36. What an amazing story! I have been with J&J for nearly 30 years and had no idea. We have such a proud and rich history of helping our country and local communities; truly a company that cares with a capital C!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


All comments will be reviewed before posting. Since this blog is about history, topics that don’t directly relate to the history of Johnson & Johnson and its operating companies won’t be posted. Product comments generally will not be posted unless they are of historical interest. Some unrelated issues may be forwarded to Johnson & Johnson folks for follow-up as appropriate. I’m also not going to post any comments that have inappropriate language...so be nice!