A Christmas (W)rap

The Basics of Christmas Present and Past –

It was 1987, and Run DMC had just released “Christmas in Hollis”, probably the most classic Christmas Rap Song in existence.  Of course Kurtis Blow came out with Christmas Rappin’ in 1980, years before the McDaniels, Mizell and Simons trio came out with their song, but maybe it was the catchiness of the lyrics or the feature in the movie Die Hard that pushed it to the top of the rap and hip hop heap. Amazingly, the Run DMC song has its roots in a 1968 Clarence Carter R&B song called “Back Door Santa” that Mizell (DJ Jam Master Jay) dug up to build the foundations of the song.  Dial up both songs on your favorite music delivery browser; the similarities are striking and you won’t be disappointed with the music either.

The “Other” Wrap

While one may argue about the necessity of rap in the Christmas season, there are certain aspects of Christmas that do not seem to change much season to season. While Christ will always be first, the Christmas tree, Christmas lights, egg nog, Santa Claus and of course neatly wrapped presents conjure up picture perfect images of Christmas past and present.  While wrapping a present flawlessly neat may be considered a disorder by some in today’s world, without the basics of Scotch® tape, that neat packaging would not be possible. The story of Scotch® tape is one of invention and patents and perhaps a slightly OCD inventor at a small sandpaper manufacturer in Minnesota who could not stay on task with his day job.

Richard Drew and His Sticky Inventions

In the 1920’s, long before rap or hip-hop, there were cars.  Plenty of them.  And even then, automotive body shops were busy not only fixing damaged vehicles, but customizing them in two tone paint jobs to supplement the boring factory finishes of the day. These custom paint jobs were all the rage, but a headache for body shops.  Richard Drew was a young mechanical engineering student who never finished his degree, but instead spent his time playing banjo and working for a small sandpaper manufacturer in Minnesota known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. His job involved calling on automotive repair shops with samples of his company’s sandpaper.   It was through his visits to various auto repair shops that he heard constant complaints from the workers about two tone paint jobs and the lack of good tape or adhesive to prevent the paint colors from bleeding into adjacent areas. 

The Birth of Masking Tape

Drew became interested in coming up with a solution to the problem of a good automotive tape, and much less interested in selling and testing sandpaper.  He came up with the idea of using a modified version of the adhesive used in making sandpaper and applying it to a paper strip backing. Drew spent two years experimenting with various formulas and combinations to come up with a successful product.  In that time, one of the challenges he faced was in the amount of adhesive to apply to the paper strips so that the tape would remove cleanly, but still work to prevent paint from wicking under the tape while in use. He tried not only numerous adhesive formulations, but also experimented with the amount to be applied to the paper strips, and even tried applying the adhesive only on the edges of the paper strip, leaving the center of the strip devoid of adhesive to ease removal. With each iteration, he took samples to his favorite auto shops for them to try.

The biggest complaint early on was the lack of enough adhesive, causing the tape to fall off or not create the paint barrier necessary for a clean job.  With a few failed paint jobs, the body shop workers told him to not be so “Scotch” with the adhesive, even going so far as to call his tape “Scotch” or cheap.   At the time, Scotch was an unflattering term for cheap or stingy, coming from the perception of Scottish thriftiness.  Soon, his tape became known as Scotch® Masking Tape, even after he finally achieved success through proper adhesive formulation and amount. On May 27, 1930 he was granted United States Patent 1,760,820, and Scotch® Masking Tape became a new product for his employer. He soon was promoted to a high level technical position in the company.  His passion for invention having been fueled by the success of Scotch® Masking Tape in a small company that previously made only sandpaper, he set out to solve another sticky problem that was emerging at the time.

The Clear Opportunity

Cellophane™ came on the scene in the early 1900’s after Swiss chemist Jacques E. Brandenberger spent ten years perfecting a clear film to protect tablecloths from wine spills.  A thin, clear material made from cellulose through a chemical process, Cellophane™ came to be used extensively in the food industry.  Whitman’s candy company first used it in the United States to wrap their chocolates.  Soon, many food products came to be wrapped in the clear material, allowing consumers to see the product they were purchasing.   The meat industry in particular thrived due to Cellophane™, as customers could easily view the product before purchase while keeping the meat sealed for longer shelf life.  Tape, when used to seal Cellophane™ packaging, spoiled the clear look and was not cosmetically desirable.  Drew was determined to come up with a clear tape using a Cellophane™ strip and a clear adhesive, the likes of which did not exist at the time. The brown adhesive that was used for his masking tape, and other tapes of the time, was clearly not an option for this new packaging material. In addition, the clear material cracked and split easily, making any subsequent tape product difficult to manufacture. Eventually, the difficulties were overcome, and United States Patent 2,177,627 entitled “Adhesive Sheeting” was granted.  Soon, other patents followed.

The Great Depression

The future for clear tape did not seem so clear at the time.  Dupont had come out with improved Cellophane™ materials that could be sealed with heat, potentially eliminating the need for tape.  The U.S. was also in the Great Depression, putting many companies out of business, as consumers no longer had money to purchase the latest and greatest products.  Instead, there was a need to repair and re-use old products, and a clear tape found great utility in many of these repair and reuse applications.  Scotch® brand tape was the perfect opportunity in such a terrible economy where thriftiness was a survival essential, and the company thrived.

…And More

The original patent for transparent tape also served as a foundation for additional patents related to materials, adhesives, and production machinery and methods. In the first two years as a product, Scotch® transparent tape suffered from dispensing difficulties.  The tape was difficult to work with, and often could not be easily started from the spool (unless you had good fingernails and good eyesight).  Then, in 1936 a 3M sales manager named John Borden designed a tape dispenser with a built in cutter, clearing yet another hurdle in the unbridled success of Scotch® tape. United States Patent 2,221,213 was awarded to Borden for his “Tape Dispenser”.

Richard Drew lived until 1980, and in 2007 was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  His humble invention is the reason that Christmas presents are wrapped so beautifully today.  According to the Smithsonian, 3M sells enough Scotch® tape each year to circle the earth 165 times. Clearly the tape is being used for more than just wrapping presents.

GRAPHIC  CREDIT:  “Wrapper’s Delight”.  Robert Gunderman.

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Authors Robert D. Gunderman P.E. (Patent Technologies, LLC and John M. Hammond P.E. (Patent Innovations, LLC are both registered patent agents and licensed professional engineers.  Copyright 2019 Robert Gunderman, Jr. and John Hammond

Note:  This short article is intended only to provide cursory background information, and is not intended to be legal advice.  No client relationship with the authors is in any way established by this article.


Categories: Innovation