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Department of Anthropology

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Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

Scotch Tape's Not-So-Sticky Purpose

scotch tape old

The original shape of a roll of Scotch Tape from the 1930's. This roll packing came before the iconic "snail" shaped dispenser we are familiar with today.

Courtesy of Flickr.

The purpose of Scotch Tape has evolved vastly since its conception. This evolution of purpose is displayed in the advertisements for the product and is representative of the ever-evolving American experience at different periods of time.

Scotch Tape was originally invented in 1930 by Richard Drew, a young engineer at 3M. This tape was invented with the purpose of creating a moisture-proof seal for the packages of grocers and bakers but has since gone through many iterations of purpose and function throughout its history. Becoming more of a household consumer product in the late 1930's, Scotch Tape then introduced the iconic plastic dispenser and later the plaid-pattern packaging to make the product easier and more enjoyable to use. During WWII, Scotch Tape was adapted to help the war effort, showing how the product could be used in yet another completely new way. After WWII, the brand begins to market the product again as a household item, focusing on brand recognition and loyalty as competitors begin to arise in the marketplace.

scotch tape logo

Courtesy of Flickr.

All of these changes in product purpose are clearly displayed through a chronological seriation of Scotch Tape's advertisements from 1930 to 1960. The tape was originally packaged in a yellow, industrial looking roll that appears to be targeting businesses in the food industry. In the late 1930's, the packaging experienced a major overhaul, changing to the current "snail" model dispenser that is convenient for household use. During WWII, the advertisements changed again to acknowledge the efforts that Scotch Tape was contributing to the war.

The advertisements show soldiers using the product to help them in battle, such as by creating a sealed gas suit or by sealing blood plasma containers that are on their way to help soldiers on the front lines. In addition to advertisements that show men in battle, the company ran another line of ads that targeted the women who were left at home during the war. The ads depicted the women struggling with certain problems that Scotch Tape could fix, reassuring them that supplies of the product would increase after the war.

scotch tape

A dispenser from the late 1930's showing the improved "snail" shaped dispenser and plaid pattern.

Courtesy of Flickr.

In the 1950's, the advertisements for Scotch Tape shifted towards a focus on women with the purpose of increasing brand loyalty among consumers. The title of the product evolves to "Scotch Brand Tape" and features the tagline "Look for the Plaid." These ads warn consumers to avoid "unknown brands," emphasizing that Scotch Brand Tape offers the best performance. These ads feature women using the product to make their lives easier, whether it be fixing a ripped page, wrapping a present, or just showing off the look of one of Scotch's "Décor Dispensers." Scotch Tape truly is a product that has evolved to fit the changing needs of American consumers, and the advertisements in this way reflect American life at these different periods of history.