Duct tape, everyone’s favorite fix-all tool and Swiss army knife of first aid, is 75 years old this year, so it seems like high time to get to the bottom of the mystery of its name. Is it “duct tape” or “duck tape”?
The answer is… both. Kind of. To fully explain this multitool’s moniker, we’ll have to embark on a little history lesson.
The tape was the brainchild of World War II military mother Vesta Stout. In 1942, she was working at a munitions plant while her sons were fighting in the war and noticed a major flaw in the ammo packaging. The tabs that the soldiers had to pull to open the boxes were flimsy—so flimsy that they would often break, leaving the men to scramble to open the boxes in the middle of the battlefield. Stout decided that a stronger material was needed. When her bosses didn’t agree, she reached out to President Roosevelt himself. Yup, moms are superheroes.
The president received her letter and decided she was right. He sent her letter to the War Production Board, and a few weeks later, Johnson & Johnson began work on an alternative to the flimsy box tape. This tape was an adhesive wrapped around “cotton duck” fabric—so, duck tape. Plus, it was waterproof, just like a duck’s feathers. Two reasons to call it duck tape; none for “duct.” Mystery solved, right?
Not quite. As time passed, the tape began to develop uses other than military ones. The postwar suburban housing boom spurred the rise of gadgets like air conditioning units and heating ducts. And contractors and homeowners alike discovered that the tape worked wonders for fixing up these ducts. (This is why the tape is silver—to match the metal of the ducts.) So it became “duct tape.” It’s pure frustrating coincidence that “duct” happens to sound a lot like “duck.” (Speaking of confusing word coincidences, here’s another name mystery solved: why “Looney Tunes” isn’t called “Looney Toons.“)
After that, “duct” primarily took over as the widely accepted appellation, and it remains so today. So “duct tape” is the answer…
…except for the fact that tape manufacturer Manco (now ShurTech), taking advantage of the similar-sounding words, trademarked the term “Duck tape” in 1980. So if you buy this brand of duct tape, it is also Duck tape. (Or, more technically, “Duck brand duct tape.” Does your head hurt yet?)
Happy 75th, duct tape. Your name might confuse us, but we can’t deny that you have your uses.