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There is no patent for duct tape. Yet objects do not simply appear out of nowhere. They have histories and their histories have histories. The stories of how they came to be are just as important and arguably as deeply influential as their use. For objects are never simply objects. They are ideas and aspirations, solutions, frustrations, symbols, and placeholders. Though many pressure-sensitive tapes have been created with durability in mind, there is a way in which we understand tape as the expedient, quick fix.
Although adhesives have been around for centuries in one form or another, tape’s story stretches back to at least the 1700s with the “discovery” by the West of rubber and rubber-based adhesives. In 1736, when Charles Marie de la Condamine of France returned home from the New World bearing latex—the milky substance extracted from rubber plants—he set out on a cycle of experimentation and invention that would lead to exponential scientific innovation. By the mid-18th century, improvements in processing such as vulcanization, in which rubber is treated with high heat and sulfur and made more durable, led to the development of everything from waterproof raincoats and revolver hand grips to electric insulation and beauty products.1
After the Civil War, when sharecropping, tenancy, and itinerant labor replaced the slave-based plantation economy for the Southern poor, cotton continued to fuel the U.S. economic engine. For well over a century, from 1803-1937, cotton remained the nation’s leading export.2
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin went into production in 1794. The difference in the percentage of the European textile market held by cotton prior to and after its invention was profound, from 6% in the 1780s to 77% in the 1880s3 (see Figure 1).
Medicinal/First Aid Applications
Relatively inexpensive rubber and cotton realized greater innovation in other industries, including those involving pressure-sensitive adhesives. In 1845, William Harral Shecut and Horace Day received an early patent for Improvement in Adhesive Plasters.4 They combined “cotton cambric or muslin” with India rubber that had been boiled, covered in turpentine, and mixed with cayenne pepper, ground litharge, and melted pine-gum.
The innovation didn’t end with the processing of the rubber, however. The penultimate product was perforated to allow the skin underneath to breathe when applied.5 After the Civil War, medical product manufacturers like Seabury & Johnson and later Johnson & Johnson had their first significant successes with medicinal plasters. An 1893 Johnson & Johnson publication noted that the employment of India rubber in plasters was “the first progressive step in plaster making…in centuries of pharmacy.” What distinguished India rubber was that it was “just the right stickiness at body temperature,” reacted favorably with nearly all medications, and was “waterproof” and “stable,” although to be sure, it remained “a highly complex and treacherous substance.”6
The rise of companies like Johnson & Johnson was the result of not only scientific and technological innovation, but also a late 19th-century concern for cleanliness and public hygiene, the call for increasing standardization and accountability, and greater professionalization in medicine and the pharmaceutical industries that supplied it. In addition, with the founding of the Red Cross in 1881 came a greater emphasis on providing basic medical training and supplies for civilians. Soon, companies were creating first-aid kits for railroad workers, factory workers and sports teams.
In 1920, Earle Dickson, a cotton buyer for Johnson & Johnson, invented what would become the Band-Aid® to meet the needs of his wife, who often nicked herself with a kitchen knife when preparing meals. A pressure-sensitive tape with a cotton layer and a waterproof backing, the Band-Aid became a staple of the first-aid kit.7
By the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers of surgical tape—be it Johnson & Johnson’s Zonas® Adhesive Plaster8 or Bauer & Black’s Adhesive Plaster Tape—had recognized a market beyond the medicinal. As shown in Figure 2, Bauer & Black touted their product as the “everyday first-aid,” suitable for fixing everything from plumbing, to abraded hands and feet.”9
In 1923, while making deliveries for 3M, Richard Drew happened on one of the more unusual deployments of surgical tape—mapping out the edges of car paint jobs—and decided he could come up with something far less expensive. After much experimentation, he applied a layer of adhesive to a thin paper, and both masking tape and 3M as producers of tape were born.10
During World War II, companies such as 3M and Johnson & Johnson would produce industrial tapes like duct tape for packaging material in order to limit the corrosive effects of the environment on bullets and metal parts sent overseas. Given tape’s links to medicine and first aid, its ease of use, and flexibility, as well as its history of preservation, little wonder that in 2003 it would be called upon to hold together an anxious nation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Technologies have histories, and their histories have histories.
For more information, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author’s acknowledgement: Special thanks to John Johnston and Jerry M. Serra for sharing their invaluable expertise.
Editor’s note: This article is based on a poster presentation given at the Pressure Sensitive Tape Council’s Tech 35 in Boston.
1. Tully, John, The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber, Monthly Review Press, 2011, 32.
2. Dattel, Eugene R., Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009, 35.
3. Ibid., 49.
4. Satas, Donatas, ed., Handbook of Pressure-Sensitive Adhesive Technology, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982, 3.
5. Shecut, William H., and Day, Horace H., Improvement in Adhesive Plasters, U.S. Patent 3,965, March 26, 1845.
6. Kilmer, F.B., ed., Belladonna: A Study of Its History, Action, and Uses in Medicine, New York, NY: Johnson & Johnson, 1893, 35.
7. “BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages Beginnings,” Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc., Band-Aid.com, 2011 and 2007, www.band-aid.com/brand-heritage.
8. Gurowitz, Margaret, “ZONAS®—The Duct Tape of Its Day,” Kilmer House: The Story of Johnson & Johnson and Its People, September 9, 2009, www.kilmerhouse.com/2009/09/zonas-the-duct-tape-of-its-day/.
9. Bauer & Black, “Adhesive Plaster Tape: The Everyday First Aid Advertisement,” The Red Cross Magazine, August 1918.
10. Feyder, Susan, “Scotch Brand Tape—a ‘Free Spirit’s Invention,’” St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press—Business, St. Paul, MN, October 5, 1975.