What Sticks: The History of Adhesive Tape

What Sticks: The History of Adhesive Tape

adhesive tape

On average, consumers buy more than 6,000 tons of duct tape each year. That amount is enough to travel to the moon and back! Adhesive tape can be used for almost anything: arts and crafts, posters, and repairs, just to name a few. The concept of adhesives can actually be traced back all the way to 4000 B.C. Archaeologists once discovered clay pots that were repaired with glue made from tree sap dating back to this time. Not far behind were the Greeks, who concocted glue from ingredients such as egg whites, blood, bones, milk, cheese, vegetables, and grains. The Romans also developed their own version of an adhesive by using tar and beeswax.

The first adhesive tape was invented in the 1920’s by a man named Richard Drew. Drew lived in Minnesota and worked as an engineer for 3M, which was a sandpaper manufacturer at the time. The process of manufacturing intrigued him, and in 1923 he invented the first masking tape to be used in industrial environments.

adhesive tape
An old 1920's advertisement for the newly invented Scotch tape

This adhesive tape was produced from cellophane paper and didn’t have adhesive in the middle, only on the edges. In its first trial run, it fell off the car and the frustrated auto painter growled at Drew, “Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!” (By “Scotch,” he meant “stingy”.) The nickname stuck, both to Drew’s improved masking tape and to his 1930 invention, Scotch Brand cellulose tape. Once launched, the adhesive tape made the adaptation from an industrial tool to a common household instrument. Luckily, economic circumstances were on his side. Due to the Great Depression of 1929, many Americans began using Scotch tape to repair items rather than replace them in an effort to save money. This caused a huge increase in demand for the adhesive tape and allowed Drew achieve success. According to 3M, Drew also invented the first waterproof, see-through, pressure-sensitive tape, which was practical for grocers, bakers, and meat packers.

Fast forward to 2012: there are over 20 different types of adhesive tapes in a variety of sizes and colors. From water activated to pre-printed, there is a specific type of tape for every possible project. Tape can be found in almost every store and most types are standardized for easy use in a tape dispenser. (The tape dispenser was created by another 3M engineer, John A Borden.) The next time you are searching for tape, thank those stingy “Scotch bosses” for contributing to the creation of such an essential household object.