What exactly is the function of a rubber duck? The answer involves debtor’s prison, hunting practice, and the Billboard 100.
From birth to age two, children often experience fear surrounding bath time, and the bright, playful stimulus of bath toys like rubber ducks can soothe them and help them overcome their resistance. Rubber ducks encourage water play that helps with coordination, stimulate the senses with bright colors and quacking noises, and just make taking a bath more fun. But have you ever wondered why the rubber duck has such a hold on the bath toy scene?
The earliest rubber duck was created in the late 1800s, but before the duck came the rubber. Charles Goodyear was born in 1800 in Connecticut and worked as a hardware merchant. When he encountered rejection in his attempt to sell hardware to the Roxbury India Rubber Company in New York, it sparked an idea that would change the rubber industry forever. Bad weather had destroyed much of Roxbury’s rubber stocks, leaving them in a financial crunch. Goodyear, who was also in dire financial straits, found himself with a lot of time on his hands in debtor’s prison and began to experiment with gum elastic. He rolled out raw rubber over and over with a pin to get the right consistency, and once out of prison, he continued to perfect his solution by adding minerals to prevent stickiness and make it malleable.
In 1839, Goodyear accidentally dropped a rubber and sulphur solution into a stove and observed that it didn’t melt. He had succeeded. The process of rendering rubber into a malleable, weather-proof, heat-resistant material was called vulcanization, and Goodyear’s innovation has inspired generations of manufacturers. When brothers Frank and Charles Seiberling opened a tire company in 1898, they named it in honor of Charles Goodyear.
Near the end of the 1800s, inventors began to make small rubber objects, as evidenced by patents filed with the U.S. Patent Office. The first ones were chew toys made of hard, solid rubber that didn’t float.
The first patent for a “Rubber Decoy Duck” was filed in 1886 by George H. Nye. It wasn’t a toy but was intended for use in hunting. Previously, decoy ducks were made of wood and were easily breakable. Nye’s new rubber-and-wood combination was more durable.
Later came rubber toys that made squeaking noises, and it was only a matter of time before the rubber duck was patented in 1928. Early rubber ducks had propellers or sprayed water like a sprinkler. But the rubber duck that caught on most rapidly was a simple rubber toy with no extra functions; it was purely for play. Following World War II, Russian-American sculptor Peter Ganine’s plain rubber duck design was immensely popular. In the 1960s, when patents on the rubber duck expired, the now-cheaper model became a bathroom staple for households across the country.
In 1970, the song “Rubber Duckie” debuted on Sesame Street when the orange muppet Ernie sang the tune to his favorite bath toy. This song made an icon out of the rubber duck and peaked at no. 16 on Billboard’s Top 100. Because of Ernie’s tubside tune, the rubber duck is now seen as the quintessential bath toy.
You’re the One
Though modern rubber ducks are actually made out of vinyl rather than rubber, the rubber duck has become an icon worldwide. Collectors seek out the most unique rubber ducks, rubber duck derbies pit the bath toys against each other in a race, and classic rubber duckies are found during bath time in many a household. The rubber duck was even inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2013.
In 2001, a maintenance worker gave an insider’s view of Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth has her own royal rubber duck, complete with an inflatable crown. This story caused a sensation and led to an 80% increase in sales of rubber ducks in Great Britain.
And just look at the largest rubber duck in the world. At a whopping 50-feet tall, it was created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman in New Zealand, debuted at a festival in Sydney, Australia, and has embarked on an international tour.
Rubber duckie, you do make bath time lots of fun!
Jones, Lydia. “The History of the Rubber Duck.” B1 Creative, October 4, 2021. https://b1creative.com/2021/10/04/the-history-of-the-rubber-duck/.
Meyer, Lotte Larsen. “Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 1 (2006): 14–23.
Rossen, Jake. “Wise Quacks: The History of the Rubber Duck.” Mental Floss, January 13, 2019.
The Strong National Museum of Play. “Rubber Duck.” https://www.museumofplay.org/toys/rubber-duck/.