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A sticky solution to a painter’s problem: the invention of Scotch tape

3M’s Scotch brand masking tape and cellophane tape were small inventions that became a consumer revolution.

Roll of 3M Scotch brand transparent tape. Circa 1960.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When 3M began in 1902, they made sandpaper. Soon the sandpaper company invented a line of products that changed household life around the world. 3M’s Scotch brand masking tape and cellophane tape were small inventions that became a consumer revolution.

Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) was founded in Two Harbors in 1902. By 1920 the company had developed some of the best sandpapers in the world. When they put out a call for new engineers to join the company, Richard Drew wrote to ask for the job. Drew, then an engineering student, had been putting himself through school by playing the banjo in several Twin Cities dance bands. He was hired to take trial samples of 3M products to auto shops, which used the sandpaper to prepare cars for painting. While on a delivery in 1923, he noticed that the auto shops had a problem.

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At the time, two-tone paint jobs were very popular. At the auto shops, Drew watched painters struggle to seal off areas for the two-color painting process. The tape that painters used either didn’t seal effectively or stuck so tightly that it peeled the paint. The tapes left gummy residue that ruined the car’s finish. After seeing the problem, Drew had the idea to create a new tape.

After presenting the idea to his supervisors, Drew was granted the use of a laboratory, where he experimented with different adhesives and backings. He eventually found an adhesive that sealed tightly while releasing cleanly. He applied it to a crepe paper backing, which gave the tape the ability to stretch and adapt to curves and contours. In 1925, 3M released Drew’s invention, the Scotch brand masking tape.

While there is some uncertainty about why the line of tape was dubbed Scotch, company legend says that the name came about during the tape’s testing phase. Scotch was a pejorative meaning cheap or stingy. In early versions of the tape, some say, Drew applied only minimal adhesive to avoid over sticking. It’s said that while using this insufficiently sticky tape, a frustrated auto painter said: “Why so Scotch with the adhesive?” The story goes that Drew took the hint and added more adhesive until both the tape and the name stuck.

After he created masking tape, Drew began to experiment with adhesives to create another kind of pressure-sensitive tape. Cellophane was frequently used to wrap products in bakeries and grocery stores, but it could not seal the packages. Drew thought that he could use the cellophane itself, coated with an adhesive, to provide a good seal. His experiments led to the 1930 release of Scotch brand cellulose tape. Although DuPont invented a way to heat seal cellophane packages shortly thereafter, making the tape redundant, Scotch tape had already found a niche in the American home.

Even though Depression-era Americans had less disposable income than usual, Scotch tape became a necessity for the times. People discovered that the tape could mend items, and make them last longer. Scotch tape could repair items almost invisibly, giving household goods longer lives at a time when replacing them was out of the question. By 1939, 3M had started marketing Scotch tape in the familiar snail-shaped package to allow for easy tape dispensing.

Over the decades, Drew and other 3M inventors developed a wide range of other tapes. In 1945, Scotch brand tapes introduced their tartan design and in the 1950s, mascot Scotty McTape appeared in print and television advertising. In 1961, 3M released Scotch brand Magic Tape. The new tape was frosty on the roll, but it nearly disappeared when applied. Magic tape had a matte surface that could be written on, unlike previous transparent tapes, and it resisted yellowing with age.

When American consumers were polled in 1985, they voted Scotch tape as the most indispensible household product. In the early twenty-first century the company was producing 5.5 million miles of tape every year, or 645 miles of tape per hour. Originally a product to help auto painters, Richard Drew’s invention of Scotch tape offered a sticky solution to the world.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.