The history of the rubber duck

It turns out there’s a national day for EVERYTHING, and the 13th January just so happens to be Rubber Duck Day! As we could all do with some light distraction, here’s a brief history of our beloved bath-time bud…

The earliest version of a ‘rubber duck’ first appeared in the late 1800s, when American chemist Charles Goodyear (later of tyre fame) invented vulcanised rubber – that’s rubber hardened via a process of heating with sulphur, making it pliable, mouldable and, most importantly, waterproof. Though, of course, the production of rubber toys wasn’t the original intended purpose of the process, they certainly turned out to be a happy bi-product!

The first ducks manufactured weren’t like the ducks we know today. For a start they were solid, weighty creatures which, unsurprisingly, didn’t float all that well (if at all!). In fact, the first rubber ducks were intended to be used a chew toys, for both babies and dogs alike, so you can imagine how unforgiving they might have been on tiny teeth!

E. Shannahan’s patent for a duck aquatic toy, filed 1931, from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the rubber duck’s association with bath-time began to materialise as a way of luring reluctant children into the tub for a much-needed scrub! Around this time, two separate duck bath toy products were developed, the first born from the mind of an inventor from Maryland, and the other from an unlikely collaboration between the Walt Disney Company and a latex manufacturer.

The first, invented in 1931 by Eleanor Shannahan of Maryland USA, was designed as an aquatic toy that could sit either above or below the surface of the bath, and would emit jets of water from the mouth and other small holes. In her own words, the toys would “produce a fountain like effect, and enable the playing of pranks by one person on another by the squirting of a fine stream of spray upon the face or other parts of a person”.  You can even view the original patent for the toy here.

As for Disney, their collaboration with Seiberling Latex Products in 1938 enabled them to create ‘bath floater’ toys, of which the most popular pair were of course Donald and Donna Duck. (N.B. A bit of Disney trivia for you all, Donna Duck was later renamed Daisy Duck, first appearing as Daisy in the film Mr. Duck Steps Out in 1940).

Images from P. Ganine’s patent for a toy duck, 1947, from the United States Patent and Trademark Office

Rubber ducks really hit the big time when in 1947, a sculptor called Peter Ganine filed a patent for a duck toy that he had created out of vinyl. Painted bright yellow and including their famous ‘squeaker’, the ducks were reproduced in their thousands and sold across the world. Then, in 1970, their fame grew to new heights when the song ‘Rubber Duckie’ was featured on Sesame Street, sung by everyone’s favourite character Ernie. The song was such a hit that it even made it to number 11 in the Billboard Charts in 1971!

Since then, rubber ducks have been making bath-time play-time for children (and grown-ups) around the world. Along with the iconic yellow and orange design, variants now exist in their hundreds, from every colour imaginable, to ducks masquerading as Romans and Vikings. The list goes on and on…

So, which rubber duckie is YOUR favourite?