The “Quacktacular” History of The Rubber Duck

One Hundred Fifty. 150 is the rough estimate of total number of ducks in my collection. However, my 150 does not account for two sponge cleaning ducks, a duck soap-on-a-rope, two rubber duck Pez dispensers, a crystal duck purchased from a Swarovski store in its home country: Austria, duck bag clips, four stuffed ducks that were gifts from students over the years, at least two pairs of rubber duck PJs (I think), one duck yard ornament, a duck planter, rubber duck ribbon, pens, a tape measure, bubbles, ornaments, and whatever else you could probably image – I probably have it. However, I’m not the only person obsessed with the little yellow novelty toy. Charlotte Lee of the United States still holds the Guinness World Record for “Largest Collection of Rubber Ducks” with 5,631 total different ducks. Over 14,000 Facebook followers, 1,500 Twitter followers, and 2,600 Instagram followers track “Mama Duck” (described on her webpage (https://www.thebigduck.us/)  as the world’s largest duck) as she floats around the United States. Even a questionably reliable tabloid article cites that Queen Elizabeth of England has a rubber ducky in her bathroom in Buckingham Palace (but I’m going to choose to believe it). The subject of many a children’s book, science experiment, and collection, there is more than meets the little blue eye of a rubber duck. So follow me on this journey as I dive into the history of the rubber duck.

Here is a photo of me sorting one box of my duck collection, while wearing my rubber duck PJs.

            To begin I think it’s best to explore the roots of my personal obsession. I can’t remember the exact date I bought my first rubber duck, but I can remember the duck. My brother and I always had a rubber duck in the bathroom (one that I still keep in my shower today, even as his color fades and I can no longer keep him clean), but my first purchase took place sometime in middle school at Barnes and Noble. If you are still lucky enough to have one of the chain book sellers in your town, I’m sure you can picture it now: the rows and rows of books, the forest green carpet, the subtle smell of Starbucks brewing in the air, and the walk to the checkout isle. Much like the candy in the checkout isle of a grocery store, Barnes and Noble line’s the walk to the register with journals, pens, bookmarks you’ll never really use, and “tiny books.” The shelf of tiny books was, and still is, my favorite place to browse. Create your own mini Zen garden. Buy this pack of mini tarot cards and learn how to tell your fortune! Start your rubber duck collection with The Mini Rubber Duckie Book. Written by Jodie Davis, and presumably the shortened version of her book Duckie, The Mini Rubber Duckie Book came in a plastic box with two miniature rubber ducks, mine were red and yellow. (Somehow I ended up with a second set, blue and yellow. Is it bad that I don’t remember how?) After that one purchase, it became an obsession. I could spot a rubber duck display across the store. If we were on that side of town, I would make my parents drive to the local Party America so I could pick up one of each different themed rubber duck party favors. Then, I started getting them as gifts. My first two classrooms? You guessed it, rubber duck themed. I had rubber duck cutouts hanging from the ceiling as group numbers, rubber ducks lining the tops of cabinets, the curtains were yellow, and there was even a rubber duck bulletin board.

            So what is the story behind the rubber duck? How did this all get started so I could one day become so obsessed? It all dates back to one man: Charles Goodyear. According to the National Toy Hall of Fame, a part of The Strong National Museum of Play, which inducted the rubber duck in 2013, rubber duck creation occurred in the late 1800s paralleled with Charles Goodyear’s new ability to make rubber soft and malleable (National 1). Goodyear was an American Inventor that came with great ideas for everything but his finances. After many financial failures, Goodyear first encountered “India Rubber” in 1830. (Charles 1). Goodyear saw promise in the rubber, and he began to experiment on the substance while in jail for his debts. Later, in 1837, Goodyear got a patent for an “improved type of rubber” and began working with other inventors and scientists to find the best chemicals to treat rubber to make it an everyday product. His ultimate discovery of “vulcanized rubber” occurred during an argument with a coworker. When Goodyear dropped his “sulfur-impregnated rubber onto a hot stove,” the rubber didn’t melt. The accident led to further experiments and eventually the discovery of the process for baking rubber to make it “vulcanized” (Charles 1). (In case you were curious, vulcanization is the “chemical process by which the physical properties of natural or synthetic rubber are improved; finished rubber has higher tensile strength and resistance to swelling and abrasion, and is elastic over a greater range of temperatures” (Vulcanization 1).) Goodyear’s patent for his vulcanized rubber was issued in 1844, but 16 years later Goodyear passed with $200,000 of debt and his discoveries were sold so the family could survive (Charles 1). The Goodyear Tire & Rubber company, while no longer in the Goodyear family, still honors Goodyear’s contributions through his name.

            But what about ducks? Shortly after Goodyear’s discovery, early versions of ducks began to appear on the market. As hard as I tried to nail down a specific date, multiple sources state the first ducks popped up in the “late 1800s”. What we do know about these early ducks is they were not the chipper, yellow, floating friends of today. According to the National Toy Hall of Fame, “the first rubber ducks didn’t even float: they were cast solid and intended as chew toys” (National).

Above is one eBay search result for a 1930s Donald Duck made by Seiberling Latex Company. Priced at $99.95.
Here is my second search result for a 1930 Donald Duck made by the Seiberling Latex Company. This one, however, priced at $295.00.

The rubber duck made steady progression. In 1930, Disney worked with the Seiberling Latex Products Company to make a Donald Duck Rubber Duck (Waxerman). It the 1940s, the Rempel company of Akron, Ohio began to produce hollow “walking rubber ducks,” but there still is no definitive date to the first sitting, and floating, little yellow ducks (Meyer 15). Meyers cites Jodie Davis’ book Duckie (which is much harder to get ahold of than necessary), who’s research leads us to believe that the origins of the standard duck tie back to the normalcy of indoor plumbing and the 1950s when manufactures began production with a softened plastic.

This eBay search led me to a Rempel Walking Rubber Duck from the 1940s – only $94.50.

            Rubber ducks officially broke through into the limelight in 1970 thanks to a little show called Sesame Street. It was Wednesday, February 25th, 1970. Ernie, played by Jim Henson, sang a song to his beloved rubber duckie (Waxman). The song, “Rubber Duckie, You’re the One,” exploded into popularity, much like today’s “Baby Shark” (you’re welcome). It hit the Billboard charts in 1971, sold 1 million copies, and was nominated for a Grammy (Waxman). Little Richard later went on to reproduce the song for the 25th season of Sesame Street. But that wasn’t the little duck’s only take on Hollywood. Veggie Tales, the popular Christian TV show for kids, released “King George and the Ducky” in 2000 (Meyer). The rubber duck continued to grow in popularity, until 2013 when it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame along with the game Chess. According to the museum, “with their bright color, smooth texture, and (for some) squeaky or quacky sounds, rubber ducks sharpen toddlers’ senses. Their presence in the bathtub soothes youngsters’ fears of water and water immersion and makes good clean fun of the routine hygiene they’re learning” (National).

And finally, an eBay find for a 1970s vinyl rubber duck for $29.99, still in the original packaging. I might actually buy this one!

            They came, they saw, they took over the world! What was left for the rubber duck to do but take on Science? As stated above, the rubber duck is already credited for “curing” children of bathroom anxieties, and in her article, Meyer also explores the many titles of children books, educational and entertaining, featuring ducks. So what’s left but Science? Unfortunately, the ducks did not have much choice. On January 10th, 1992, somewhere in the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” a ship travelling from Hong Kong to the Port of Tacoma experienced less than favorable weather (Hohn 9). Some point during a storm, the ship lost containers carrying 28,800 plastic bath toys to the ocean. Now “7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free” (Hohn 10). The brave bath toys traveled in some cases thousands of miles around the globe, trackable in part thanks to the logo on the bottom of each toy. In 1993, toys arrived in Shemya, a town near the spill site (Hohn 14). In 1995, one was found in Washington state. Hohn, author of the book Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, who went in Search of Them, cites a father and son team who found more than 40 of the toys between 1992 and 1996 along the Alaskan coast (Hohn 14). In his book, Hohn travels around the country to track, and hopefully find one of the lost ducks. He discovers that the ducks were not only a cool find for the lucky beach goer, but instead a scientific staple. Impacted by currents, El Nińo, and Ocean Gyres, the ducks potentially ended up in an oceanic garbage patch. Hohn’s 378-page journey takes him around the globe as he chases the ducks and learns about the damage ocean trash is doing to the environment. Eve Bunting and Eric Carle also described the event, but in a milder version through children’s books. Ducky, by Bunting tells the realistic story from a lost duck’s perspective, where 10 Little Rubber Ducks, by Carle incorporates counting into the mix.

            But that wasn’t the only time rubber ducks took on Science! With the melting of the polar ice caps, Scientists are trying to track melted glacial ice. According to Klotz of Discovery News and NBC, “when a sophisticated science probe failed to return any data about whether pools of melted glacial ice were showing up in the ocean, a NASA researcher turned to a decidedly low-tech solution: a brigade of rubber ducks” (Klotz). Nasa scientists are trying to understand changing water levels around the Earth, which is quite possibly tied to melting glaciers. To find out, Scientists are placing rubber ducks as “probes” in the ice, with hopes that they will flow out with summer melt and be found and reported by local fishermen (Klotz). This particular report was published in 2010, and updated in 2012, and is the newest report I can personally find on the topic. Currently no ducks have been found, or at least reported found.

            My rubber duck collection is not quite as active, or famous, or vintage. The most excitement my rubber duck collection has had in the past 15 years has been the “float test.” A fun, and slightly aggressive, side bar: not all rubber ducks float upright like they’re supposed to. Unfortunately, most new ducks flip to their side, or flip face down like a duck hunting in water. Every time I get a new duck I have to know: so I do the “float test.” And this recollection does not even begin to tell all the duck stories in the world. I could have easily added another hour of time covering duck races for charity, inflatable duck toys for the pool, and even rubber duck trophies for the most “quacktacular” team player! Instead I plan on spending that time trying to convince my husband to let me spend the $200.00 on a
Seiberling duck. Think he’ll go for it?

– Victoria

Works Cited

Big Duck LLC, editor. “World’s Largest Rubber Duck – The World Is Her Bathtub.” Thebigduck.Us, 2019, https://www.thebigduck.us/.

Bunting, Eve. Ducky. Clarion Books, 1997.

Carle, Eric. 10 Little Rubber Ducks. HarpersCollins, 2005.

“Charles Goodyear.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale, 1998. Biography In Contexthttp://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1631002613/BIC?u=tope96505&sid=BIC&xid=542ddd57. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Guinness World Records Limited, editor. “Largest Collection of Rubber Ducks.” Guinness World Records, Guinness World Records Limited, 2019, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/largest-collection-of-rubber-ducks.

Hohn, Donovan. Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. Penguin Group, 2011.

Klotz, Irene. “Rubber Duckies to the Rescue in Glacier Research.” Environment on NBCNews.Com, Discovery Channel, 13 July 2010, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/26857674/ns/us_news-environment/t/rubber-duckies-rescue-glacier-research/#.XEY7G1xKjIV.

Lotte, Meyer. “Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 14–23, http://www.celebriducks.com/pdf/rubber_duck_history.pdf.

National Toy Hall of Fame. “Rubber Duck: Inducted 2013.” National Toy Hall of Fame, The Strong, 2019.

“Vulcanization.” <em>Britannica School</em>, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15 Sep. 2008. school.eb.com/levels/high/article/vulcanization/75786. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Waxman, Olivia. “Rubber Duckie, You’re the One: Beloved Bath Companion Inducted into National Toy Hall of Fame.” TIME.Com, Time USA, 8 Nov. 2013, http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/11/07/rubber-duckie-youre-the-one-beloved-bath-companion-inducted-into-national-toy-hall-of-fame/.

4 thoughts on “The “Quacktacular” History of The Rubber Duck”

  1. Very interesting! You really did a lot of research for this. I am a big fan of Ernie’s rubber duckie song, as well as The Veggie Tales story and song. Thanks for giving me a smile!

    Like

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