Image ID DC89RC Black Nasty Industrial Duck Tape Duct Tape CREDIT Altin Osmanaj Alamy Stock Photo
Black industrial tape (Picture: Altin Osmanaj / Alamy Stock Photo).
WWII

Black Nasty: Duct tape and the military mum you should thank for creating it

Image ID DC89RC Black Nasty Industrial Duck Tape Duct Tape CREDIT Altin Osmanaj Alamy Stock Photo
Black industrial tape (Picture: Altin Osmanaj / Alamy Stock Photo).

It is the essential, unofficial kit that keeps Britain's Armed Forces running, but did you know that duct tape was invented by a mother who, wanting to save the lives of soldiers during the Second World War, wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a cunning plan of action? 

In 1943, mother-of-eight Vesta Stoudt worked at the Green River Ordnance Plant, a large munitions factory based in Illinois, inspecting and packing cartridges used to launch rifle grenades. 

She took on the job because two of her children served with the US Navy and she wanted to contribute in some way to the Second World War effort. 

Her son Clarence, 20, saw action in the Atlantic and one of her other sons, Lowell, 26, served in the Pacific as a Construction Mechanic. 

Speaking in 1943 to Chicago Sunday Tribute journalist Philip Hampson after winning an award given to those working in war plants during the Second World War, Stoudt advised other parents to do the same, saying: "You will do less worrying about your boys and at the same you will be helping them." 

But Stoudt didn't win the outstanding achievement on the production line award for simply working at the war plant. 

The tenacious woman was starting to notice a big problem faced by serving personnel overseas and had decided to take action. 

Image ID: D5FWJ7 WW2 production workers at the Vilter Manufacturing Company making M5 and M7 guns for the US Army Former housewife, 24, filing small parts. Her husband and brother are in the armed service CREDIT PF-(bygone1) / Alamy Stock Photo
A woman filing small parts used to make M5 and M7 guns for the US Army at Vilter Manufacturing Company in Milwaukee, USA. Her husband and brother were in the armed forces (Picture: PF-(bygone1) / Alamy Stock Photo).

Margaret Gurowitz, Chief Historian for Johnson & Johnson, the company which created the first duct tape, discovered a letter Vesta had written to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in which she described the problem and offered a clever solution. 

The cartridges Vesta was packing at the Green River Ordnance Plant were placed in boxes that were waterproofed and sealed using paper tape and wax. 

In order to open these boxes, a small amount of paper tape was left free by the flap to loosen the wax – however, this system was flawed which left military mother Vesta worried. 

The paper tape was not sturdy enough to withstand being pulled by soldiers during fierce battle so it would rip. 

Many service personnel would waste precious time trying to open the ammunition boxes, time that could be better spent attacking the enemy. 

Vesta set about finding a way to solve this problem to help keep servicemen like her sons safe. 

She invented a strong, waterproof tape made from thin duck cloth coated in plastic that could be ripped by hand reliably every time. 

Sgt Daniel Bell holds a makeshift pontoon as LCpl Carson Benton wraps it in duct tape during the Independence Day 'Build Your Own Boat' race on 3 July 2013 (Picture: US Marine Corps).
Sgt Daniel Bell holds a makeshift pontoon as LCpl Carson Benton wraps it in duct tape during the Independence Day 'Build Your Own Boat' race on 3 July 2013 (Picture: US Marine Corps).

However, Vesta was not finding it easy to get her idea off the ground, so she went straight to the top and wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 10 February 10, 1943. 

In the letter, discovered by the duck tape inventor's great-granddaughter Kari Santo, Vesta made it very clear that she and the president had one thing in common – they both had children whose lives were at risk from inefficient military equipment not fit for purpose. 

She said: "Now your son, my son and our neighbour’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 10 he hasn't any." 

"I have two sons out there somewhere, 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." 

Boatswain's Mate Seaman Vanessa Losano wraps duct tape around a strand of mooring line on the fantail of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on 14 October 2020 (Picture: US Navy).
Boatswain's Mate Seaman Vanessa Losano wraps duct tape around a strand of mooring line on the fantail of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz on 14 October 2020 (Picture: US Navy).

President Roosevelt sent Vesta's letter about improving munition packaging to the War Production Board in Washington and within a matter of weeks they had responded. 

The letter, written by Howard Coonley, Director Conservation Division at the War Production Board, said: "The Ordnance Department has not only pressed the matter, but has now informed us that the change you have recommended has been approved with the comment that the idea is of exceptional merit." 

Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest healthcare company – manufacturing everything from baby lotion, first sold in 1944, to their latest range of plasters which come in a variety of different skin tones – was asked by the government to mass-produce it. 

They were the first company to make cotton as we know it to be today – white, sterile and absorbent. 

This meant they could mass-produce antiseptic surgical supplies like sutures, gauze and bandages. 

They also had experience in making adhesive tape which is why they were ordered by the War Production Board to help them create Duck Tape – the name eventually given to Vesta's creation. 

Johnson & Johnson also played their part in the war effort by mass producing items such as gas masks, parts for aircraft and camouflage material. 

In the 1945 annual report, Johnson & Johnson commented on the creation of Duck Tape. 

"In Milltown, New Jersey, the Industrial Tape Corporation plant was one of the largest suppliers of industrial tape for the armed forces. 

"These pressure-sensitive tapes, easy to handle and versatile in use, saved valuable time in manufacturing and packaging war materials. 

"A wide variety of tapes to serve a multitude of particular purposes were made for the aviation industry alone. 

"Actually, hundreds of thousands of miles of special waterproof tapes were used on tanks, planes, and ammunition destined for overseas." 

Beaver Hangar Falkland Islands 1980s Shrapnel Damage Credit Lt Col (Retd) Crawford
Beaver Hangar was damaged by shrapnel and temporarily fixed by duct tape on the Falkland Islands in the 1980s (Picture: Lt Col (Retd) Crawford).

And Duck Tape, Duct Tape, Harry Black, Black Nasty or whatever you prefer to call it is still being used by the UK's Armed Forces today. 

From making the tin roof of an aircraft hangar watertight for a year after it was damaged by an explosion during the Falklands War to securing end straps on webbing and quickly fixing Apache helicopters, duct tape is the go-to solution for most military problems that need a quick, temporary fix. 

Next time you use duct tape perhaps spare a thought for the exceptional woman who invented it, Vesta Stoudt. 

What have you used duct tape for lately?