The Woman Who Invented Duct Tape
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.
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.
“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:
“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]
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.”
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, 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.)
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.