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Last Updated: Monday, 7 July, 2003, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
A brief history of sticky tape
It's a must-have for quick fixes and gift wrapping. But how was racial stereotyping responsible for what is less commonly known as sticky tape?

Scotch Tape
The "Scotch" name has politically incorrect origins
It is to sticky tape what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners. The name Sellotape is so deeply ingrained in the British language it has become a generic word for the product itself.

When the Sellotape Company was sold to a German buyer last year, analysts warned one thing above all else should not be tampered with - the name.

Sellotape has cultivated an "affectionate image", says brand consultant Rita Clifton, "because of childhood memories".

Tape became a staple

But the company was not first off the blocks in the sticky tape revolution, a new radio programme reveals this week.

Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it
Comment that gave Scotch tape its name

That honour goes to the American office stationery firm, 3M.

These days, it's hard to think of a world without sticky tape. So many and varied are its uses, and so much is it a part of our daily lives, who actually stops to think about its origins?

But the magic of a transparent tape that instantly bonds with the merest press of the finger was unknown 75 years ago.

The BBC Radio 4 series Substance: A History of Modern Synthetic Materials, tells how this modern-day office staple was the brainchild of a dropout student who had little time for workplace strictures.

Richard Drew, already the inventor of masking tape, fixed his attentions on a newly-invented thin film which could be used to wrap food.

Post It notes
3M also invented the Post It note
Working against the wishes of his bosses, which meant fiddling his expenses to buy equipment for his work, Mr Drew experimented with applying adhesive to the cellophane. In 1930 he unveiled sticky tape to the world.

Scotch tape, or Scotch Brand Cellulose Tape, as it was originally known, derived its name from a wisecrack about the stinginess of glue used on the original tape.

Being the start of the Great Depression, it was not the best time to launch a new product in the US. But Scotch Tape actually saved money.

"It was a time when people were looking for ways to save money by repairing and mending existing household products so they didn't have to buy new ones," says 3M's Gary Kieker.

Sellotape, the British equivalent, arrived in 1937, and also proved itself to be the right product at the right time. During the war, it was used for sealing ammunition boxes and taping up windows to minimise potential bomb damage.

But over time sticky tape has come to have more positive associations, particularly as a key component in present wrapping.

Summer rush for Christmas

The manufacture of tape is a seasonal business focussed on Christmas, and it is now - in July - that work really steps up at the Sellotape factory in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, to prepare for the rush.

And as uses have changed, so the variety of different tapes has grown.

Today, 3M makes dozens of different Scotch tape, from double-coated tape to electrical duct tape; Freezer Tape to Hair Set Tape.

And with the development of super-strong industrial tape over the past 20 years, sticky tape is certainly not about to come unstuck.

Substance: A History of Modern Synthetic Materials is broadcast in the UK on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 8 July at 0930 BST.


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