“Duct tape is like the Force. It has a light side, a dark side and it holds the universe together.” – Carl Zwanzig
While people have debated what holds society together—Science? Art? Motivational posters?—they tend to overlook sticky stuff. And yet, without adhesives, caulks and glues made of tar, resin and beeswax, primitive hunters would struggle to assemble weapons, Romans would not have been able to prevent their trade ships from sinking and primeval students would have had no way of completing their prehistoric macaroni art projects.
Today, our sticky bounty is great; not only do we have glues running the gamut of super to gorilla, we’ve got all manner of tapes: one- and two-sided, masked and Scotched. But ranking above all of them in terms of utility and quasi-religious devotion—the former fueling the latter—is duct tape.
The breadth of duct tape’s usefulness is amazing; from temporary pant hems to a critical component in the filtering device that saved the crew of Apollo 13, duct tape is used to seal boxes, make wallets and provide quick fix auto repairs. When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge—who would one day join the board of Home Depot—encouraged Americans to be prepared for terror attacks, he said every home should be outfitted with duct tape. Fitting, since this product was borne of war.
Duct tape was developed by the Revolite division of Johnson & Johnson during World War II. Originally called “duck” after the cotton duck fabric from which it was originally manufactured, the tape was used to seal ammunition cases against moisture and could be torn by hand so soldiers didn’t have to waste time bothering with knives or scissors. The latter feature came from a suggestion by Vesta Stoudt, a Johnson & Johnson factory worker and mother of two WWII servicemen.
Duct tape utilizes a thin gauze called a scrim made of either cotton, polyester, nylon, rayon or fiberglass and laminated to a backing of low density polyethylene. Its adhesive is formulated with rubber compounds that ensure long-term bonding in comparison to other tapes which use polymers that are not as binding.
In many ways, duct tape was a product made specifically for export. Upon its production, the tape was shipped overseas to the war’s major theaters of conflict in Europe and Asia. Given that it was designed to keep ammunition dry, you can bet duct tape hit the beaches on D-Day. It wasn’t long after its introduction that GIs found this new tape could be used for a lot of unintended tasks. Soon, soldiers were using the stuff to repair rifles, jeeps, etc.
Because it was used primarily overseas, it wasn’t until after the war that duct tape got its major commercial introduction in the States. Though it enjoyed immediate popularity, it also had its issues. Most especially, the tape was so sticky that rolls would often get stuck to each other during shipping and would be difficult to separate. That remained an issue until the early 1970s, when the Manco Manufacturing Co. began shrink wrapping its tape, solving the problem and increasing the product’s popularity.
Duct tape’s popularity has a truly global component when you consider that the amount of it sold annually could wrap around the equator more than a dozen times. Just how popular? Canada even made a movie about it.
Though developed in the U.S., duct tape is manufactured around the globe and, yes, the Chinese are now major duct tape players. The largest rolls of duct tape ever made were produced by German manufacturer Henkel. The rolls had a diameter of more than five feet and weighed 650 pounds.
Though it is most often seen in its silvery gray form—the color comes from powdered aluminum pigment—duct tape was actually first produced green in keeping with its military roots. The silvery gray tint proved useful when it was used with a lot of steel products. Today, duct tape comes in all colors and designs, from tie dye to rainbow to mustache to rainbow mustache to pink polka dot. A relatively new color, harkening back to the product’s origins: green camouflage.
Though the uses for duct tape are seemingly endless—Duck brand duct tape holds a contest each year for students to create prom dresses out of the stuff—there is one thing that you should not use duct tape on: ducts. In 1998, Berkeley Lab said it was a poor choice for repairing HVAC ducts, pointing out that research had shown that, in that context, duct tape had “failed reliably and often quite catastrophically.
NARS 2019 Annual Meeting