They’re small, squeezable, cute, and a ubiquitous part of an American childhood. Even if you didn’t actually have a rubber duckie, there was a near-perfect chance you knew what they were, probably had something with the duck on it was a design. It’s come to be an icon for children or childhood and despite rampant coca-colonization, the spread of American culture through capitalism, has never really caught on in other places.
Let’s dispense with one bit of inevitable pedantry – Rubber duck is a misnomer – they’re pretty much all made of much cheaper vinyl. Okay, with that done, I can relax and enjoy the pedagogie. In their defense, rubber ducks were originally rubber. Solid rubber, in fact, which meant that, ironically, they didn’t float. In 1933, a latex supplier licensed and produced a series of Disney character bath floaters, the most popular being Donald and Donna Duck. Wait, who the hell is Donna Duck? googling Ah, first appearing as Daisy in the film Mr. Duck Steps Out in 1940, she would be renamed Daisy Duck. Disney characters have always, and if their megacorp status […] always will be, popular, and their license fees have always been steep, which encouraged some toy makers to find similar things that might sell as well.
In 1952, Dietrich Rempel of Ohio developed a machine to cast hollow rubber items, a process called roto-casting. Now, I couldn’t be asked to read the micro-fiche-sized font on the patent, but going off the picture and what I’ve seen on Modern Marvels and chocolate-making videos, it looks like a mold into which you put enough molten medium to cover the inside to the desired thickness and the machine rotates it to get even coverage while it sets. Rempel patented that and at least one toy, “Hollow toy figure with extensible member.” It’s not what you think. Well, it could be. It was one of those bulbous toys where you squeeze it and some body part sticks out. I know, it sounds like filth, hold on. In this case, it was a slightly terrifying clown who stuck his tongue out when you squoze his paunch. In addition to his firsts, Rempel’s company, Rempel Manufacturing, was also the last company in the U.S. to make real rubber toys, until they too stopped in the mid-60s.
What’s all this about rubber and non-rubber anyway? Colloquially, we might use rubber to refer to any pliant and pliable plastic-y product, but real and proper rubber comes from rubber trees, Hevea brasiliensis, which is native to South America. The Maya, who had been living in the Amazon region for centuries, had long been extracting the white sap from these trees which can grow to be 100ft/30m tall and using it to make balls and toys. The sap is extracted by making a groove through the bark into the cambium layer, the growing part of the trunk, and trays are suspended under each groove to collect the sap, rather like collecting sap for maple syrup, but not nearly as tasty…I assume. Only about 30% of the sap is rubber and it must be filtered, diluted, treated with acid and all kinds of things to get it out. The last stage is actually to smoke it, to destroy residual proteins which would rot over time.
According to my sources, the substance and tree picked up the name rubber in 1770, when chemist Joseph Priestley used a bit of it to rub off a pencil line from some paper and voila. But I’m going to leave an asterisk on that one because, like a lot of etymology apocrypha, it’s a little too convenient to smell like truth.
The thing about natural rubber is that it, like me, is quite susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. Too warm and it basically melts into sticky goo; too cold and it becomes brittle and cracks. In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered you could combat much of that with the addition of some sulphur, soot, and some heat, in a process called vulcanisation. When rubber is vulcanised, it retains its elasticity but becomes stronger and less sticky. Charles wasn’t the founder of the Goodyear tires company, though. He’d died broke forty years before the company, which was named in his honor, was started. Now that rubber could be useful and there was a whole Industrial revolution going on, rubber trees were planted on a large scale in countries all over the tropics, such as India, Ceylon (presently Sri Lanka), and Indonesia. The demand for rubber had soared by the end of the nineteenth century when clever sausages decided to put internal combustion engines atop four rubber tires, and synthetic alternatives made from crude oil were needed to meet the increased demand.
So now it’s the 1940’s and we’ve got lots of alternatives to natural rubber, which is handy since the first half of the decade saw a lot of personnel and materiel being moved around the western front, the eastern front, and the Pacific theater. In 1949, Peter Ganine, a Russian-American sculptor, created the design that would become the first commercial rubber duck. He patented his duck and reproduced it as a floating toy, the “uncapsizeable duck,” meaning it would always float upright. His toy patent started in 1949 and sold 50 million ducks before the patent expired 14 years later and the duck was fair game for eager competitors. For more on patents, copyrights, and such like, check out [reference past episode]
Another key year in the histoire de canard was 1970. On Feb 25, a beloved burnt orange Jim Henson puppet, in his first solo segment, held up a little up a sassy little yellow duck and began to sing. [sfx song]
Data point of one, I haven’t taken a bath in 20+ years. I shower like a normal person and I’ve been partially to fully submerged in the tiny personal pool in the en suite, but I’m not a bath person. That being said, I do own a rubber duckie. It’s covered in rhinestones, as are many mundane household items after my seven-year trip as a burlesque dancer. I did burlesque to this song, not a word of a lie.
The song, written by Sesame Street head writer Jeff Moss, wasn’t only a hit with the under-fives. It was released as a single, ye olde 45 rpm record, and became a certifiable mainstream hit. It was especially popular in urban settings, where the show is set and much of the viewership lives. It sold over 1 million copies and peak at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 that September. It got as high as #10 in Australia. Good on ya. This wasn’t the only time the voice of Jim Henson charted, either. See also getting the #25 spot in 1979, as Kermit the Frog, singing Rainbow Connection. I actually produced two years of a Jim Henson tribute burlesque show, which the Rubber Duckie act wasn’t even in, and we’d always close with that song. It’s good if you can get ‘em laughing; it’s great if you can get ‘em crying.
Moss also wrote “I Love Trash,” which I almost did a routine to, and “Nasty Dan,” which Johnny Cash sang to Oscar the Grouch on an episode of Sesame Street and later put out on The Johnny Cash Children’s Album. Also interesting to note, Johnny Cash put out a children’s album, further illustrating that people are complex, flawed, wonderful creatures and that I can still be knocked-flat surprised with what I find doing my research.
“Rubber Duckie” was nominated for a Grammy, but narrowly lost to,,, The Sesame Street Book And Record, which the song was also on, so flawless victory. Rubber Duckie continues to be popular, with official recordings in Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Dutch to name a few. In 1996, a German version of the song sold 1.8 million copies. Rubber Duckie, it seems we’re all awfully fond of you.
One duck in one bathtub is nice, but if a little is good, a lot must be better, so how about thousands of ducks in a huge body of water? It’s for charity, if that sweetens the pot any.
People donate money to the organizer by sponsoring a duck. On the big day, all of the ducks are dumped into a waterway, say the James River here in Richmond, as we used to do. The first duck to float past the finish line bags its sponsor prizes donated by the event’s big sponsors. Rubber duck derbies pop up all over the world. The largest race in the United States is the annual Freestore Foodbank Rubber Duck Regatta in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since it started in 1994, the race has grown to over 100,000 ducks and raised a cumulative $5 million. One of the more famous rubber duck races is the Great Knoxville Rubber Duck Race, or should I say infamous? The Tennessee Supreme Court had ruled that it was a lottery, and you can’t run your own lottery, so the race was off. State law had to be updated to allow lotteries with special exceptions so they could go back to racing over 40,000 ducks to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Tennessee valley.
If that’s taking it up to ten, let’s crank out duckie delight up to 11. What if you dumped an entire [ ] of ducks? We’ve been answering that question since 1992 and learning shed-loads along the way. In 1992, a cargo ship in the North Pacific lost a shipping container on its way from China to the United States that spilled nearly 29,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys into the ocean. Scientists like Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a self-described student of Flotsametrics, the understanding of how things float around the waters of the world have used the rubber duck “disaster” to study ocean currents in a way they never could have otherwise. Some ducks washed up in Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Newfoundland, Scotland, and even frozen in Arctic ice. They’ve been dubbed the “Friendly Floatees,” by devoted followers who have tracked their progress over the years.
Among these famous fowl are the 2,000 or so that still circulate in the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex of currents that stretches between Japan and southeast Alaska. “We always knew that this gyre existed,” said Ebbesmeyer, “But until the ducks came along, we didn’t know how long it took to complete a circuit.” Think of it like knowing where and how planets move through the solar system, but not how long their orbits take. The North Pacific Gyre takes three years. If you’ve been picturing a cute aquatic carousel of happily-bobbing brightly-colored toys, I’m sorry to yuck your yum, but they’re part of the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, a post-industrial, late-stage capitalism Charybdis. Some of the trash got there the same way the rubber duckies did, via lost shipping containers, an alarmingly common occurrence. It’s hard to say how many semi trailer sized metal boxes of consumer goods go into the drink, but estimates range from several hundred to 10,000 a year. And that’s still only a thin sliver of the pollution pie chart.
Today we know there are as many as 11 major gyres across the world’s oceans, and all of them are potential vestibules for the world’s trash. The durability of plastic is fine while you own it, but that means whatever you just threw away is pretty much here for good. The Friendly Floatees illustrate that all the world’s oceans are really one big connected system, and that plastic persists for a very long time. Ducks are still washing up in pretty good nick. Hell, people sometimes find plastic stuff from WW2 battles that have been at sea for more than 70 years.
Telling you about the lost ducks is all well and good, but what if you could see for yourself? We weren’t filming every square inch of the planet at all times back in 1992, so this calls for a dramatic reenactment. But how do you dramatically reenact a minor environmental disaster? That was the challenge for a BBC Crew filming Blue Planet II. For starters, you need to pick up after yourself. Every duck must be accounted for at the end of the day. Leave no drake behind.
30 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, armed with a camera drone and lots of nets, the crew dumped 250 ducks into the middle of the open ocean. They didn’t quite make it back to the UK with all 250 – the Costa Rican members of the team asked to keep some as souvenirs. 🙂
Along the lines of “Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or a dozen duck-sized horses?” if you don’t like lots of small ducks, I have a few ginormous ones for you. Last year in Maine, folks headed to their boats in Belfast Harbor to find a 25-foot tall bright yellow inflatable staring back at them. Its juicy duck breast was emblazoned with the simple word Joy. Whose was it? Why was it there? Was it advertising something? Was it art? Was it a message? Nobody knows! The only clue, which came later, was a note pinned to the harbormaster’s office bulletin board, saying the duck was a gift from “anonymous benequackers” who live in “The Land of Misfit Toys, USA.” But it was moored in a spot where it wasn’t actually in anyone’s way, so harbormaster Katherine Given just let it be. Folks started coming to the town of 6k to see it.
Then, a few weeks later, poof, duck gone. Given suspected the duck was removed ahead of Tropical Storm Henri, or perhaps duck hunting season. “Most people loved it. They really were rather upset when it left,” Given said. “It was fun while it lasted.” That’s when the note appeared on the bulletin board. “JOY simply is fowl play. In this day in age of such bitter divisiveness in our country, we wanted to put forth a reminder of our commonalities instead of our differences. Nothing embodies childhood more than being in a warm bath with your rubber ducky – the joy of not having a care in the world other than having to remember to wash behind our ears,” the letter stated. The letter indicated that after departing Belfast, the duck might land somewhere else, but so far, it hasn’t resurfaced.
Some ducks, though, show up like superheroes when they’re needed. In 2020, rubber ducks, many in the form of pool innertubes, became one of the symbols adopted by protestors in Thailand in 2020. They sought the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and reform of the Thai monarchy, marching in the street, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miz to displaying the three-finger salute – that’s how a source article described it and I gave it a google to see if it was a rude gesture, like Brits giving the two-finger salute, aka the V, but it’s the gesture from the Hunger Games. Still, that’s a unique protest.
Some say the ducks got involved as a joke, while some protestors claim the rubber ducks were used to mock the government and the monarchy. They first appeared in a gathering of protestors outside the police headquarters in Bangkok, on what would be the most violent day of demonstrations. The protestors used the duck floaties as shields and advanced towards police lines when police forces began firing water cannons.
Versions of these rubber ducks were seen during the 2017-2018 anti-corruption protests in Russia, calling for the resignation of Vladimir Putin and his government. Better luck on that next time, I guess. The ducks also surfaced during protests last year in Hong Kong, where protesters confronted police and were photographed carrying these small plastic ducks. One iconic image from these protests in Hong Kong shows a battalion of police standing on one side of a road with a small yellow rubber duck placed on the ground in front.
A yellow duck was the mascot for 2016 protests calling for the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. This giant inflatable duck had black Xs instead of eyes and “Chega de pagar o pato” in red letters across its belly – I’m told it roughly translates to “come pay the piper.” The giant duck was commissioned by a powerful Brazilian industrial group, FIESP, to use in protests against corruption and high taxes from last September, But it has made a number of appearances in demonstrations against the president in recent months. But the president wasn’t the protestors’ only problem. They also had to contend with Florentijn Hofman.
Hofman is a Dutch artist best known for fun giant versions of things and urban art installations like the HippopoThames, a 2014 installation on the River Thames in London, of, you guessed it, a hippo. If you’d been flexing your Latin and thought I was going to say “horse,” my apologies. In 2007, he debuted the creatively named Rubber Duck, a series of 50 ft high inflatable yellow ducks that appeared in cities around the world. “By making huge sculptures, you downsize the human,” Hofman told Bloomberg last year. “That takes away our ego and makes us communicate easier with each other.” The statue is made out of a PVC pipe skeleton, seated on a giant pontoon and skinned with plastic that’s kept inflated, most times, with the help of a generator. The duck would automatically deflate if wind speeds got above a certain threshold, or if it got punctured, as in Philly, or worse –the 2014 duck was sunk by a typhoon, never to be seen again.
Over the course of a decade, Rubber Duck went places like to Hong Kong, Toronto, Osaka, Sydney, LA and bizarrely Pittsburgh, PA and Norfolk, VA. For those in foreign parts, there’s a reason you don’t see aliens attacking Pittsburgh and Norfolk in the movies. They’re fine, I live two hours from Norfolk, but they are no Sao Paolo. Each year’s Rubber Duck was created in or near the city it was “visiting.” This comes into play big time with the Brazil situation. Bonus fact: while Rubber Duck was in Beijing in 2013, Chinese authorities blocked internet searches for “giant yellow duck” after an artist photoshop swapped the tucks into armored vehicles in the infamous “Tank Man” photo from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Rubber Duck attracts tourists when it’s in town, yay for the local economy, but don’t get too excited. Hofman keeps his duck on a short leash known as copyright. Hofman’s decision to enforce copyright over all rubber ducks when his art project is in town funnels the cash flow it generates into certain approved channels. Cross that line and he’s liable to sue you or simply take his duck and go home.
Enter player 2, Craig Samborski, “the go-to guy for everything concerning large/mega special event productions,” according to his Linkedin page. He made an even bigger duck, which he and his partner call “Mama Duck” and began renting it out to cities, like Ontario, which is where it was when Hofman’s people issued this statement:
“In 2014, Studio Florentijn Hofman retained Mr. Craig Samborski to assist in the production of our art installation in Los Angeles. Since that time, Mr. Samborski has been using our patterns, our design, and our intellectual property to profit off of what was supposed to be a public art installation. By renting the duck at exorbitant rates against the wishes of its creator, Mr. Samborski not only is stealing this joy from the public, he is stealing from the legitimate artist and creator of this exhibit.”
Samborski and his partner, Ryan Whaley, while not denying that they used Hofman’s patterns, maintained that their design was based on the original toy and was well in the public domain, even their version. The Canada situation parallels Brazil pretty closely. “It is exactly our design and our specific technical patterns,” said Hofman’s rep in a BBC Brasil interview. “Changing the eyes doesn’t change our technical design of the shape and beak.” The same factory that had produced Hofman’s official Rubber Duck also produced the one for the protests.
The factory owner, Denilson Sousa, maintained his innocence, for lack of a better phrase, stating he would never risk his company’s reputation like that. But Mr Hofman’s team said the factory “made a very unwise decision” and that he considered it “illegal use of the exact design and therefore copyright infringement”. And as is so often the case, everyone reports on the outrage, no one reports on the outcome. If you’ve ever caught wind of Hofman vs Brazilian protesters, soc med.
Even when people aren’t “ripping them off,” life isn’t always easy for Hofman’s ducks. In 2013, Rubber Duck deflated without official leave in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. A few months later, it was in Taiwan’s Keelung Port, when it suddenly burst in front of the gathering crowd. That was better than Belgium, at least, where a man stabbed the duck 42 times for reasons I’m sure he felt quite passionate about.