Rubber Duckie, you're the one,
You make bathtime lots of fun,
Rubber Duckie, I'm awfully fond of you;
(woh woh, bee doh!)
Rubber Duckie, joy of joys,
When I squeeze you, you make noise!
Rubber Duckie, you're my very best friend, it's true!
-Sesame Street, Rubber Duckie
Who hasn't sung this ditty at bath time, as a child or as an adult, singing it to your own child? Rubber ducks are part and parcel of our culture as icons of bath time. So what's behind their popularity in our North American bathrooms?
The Rubber Industry
The rubber duckie (or, these days, more like plastic duckie) is tightly linked to the rise of the rubber industry in the 19th century.
Rubber was first introduced in Europe in the early 1700s in France, and the first scientific studies of the properties of the material were published during that century. The word "rubber" comes from Joseph Priestley who, in 1770, discovered that the material could erase the marks a pencil left on paper by rubbing--hence "rubber".
Until the late 1800s, the production of rubber latex and the growth of the latex tree was fiercely protected by Brazil, until a British man smuggled seeds out of South America and had them grown in places like India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. Malaysia is now the biggest producer of natural rubber in the world!
The First Duckie
In the 1940s, a sculptor by the name of Peter Ganine made the first rubber duck. In order to make a living, he patented many of his animal sculptures and had them reproduced as toys--and this is where the first commercial rubber duck comes from.
This first edition of the floating toy, made of plastic instead of natural rubber, was extremely popular, even by today's standards: over 50 million of them were sold. The patent mentions "upcapsizeable duck", which means that the duck can float.
From there, the rubber duck made its way into the bathrooms, hearts, and minds of Americans.
"Rubber Duckie", Sesame Street
The show Sesame Street also provided a boost to the popularity of the rubber duck in American homes. In 1970, the show featured the song sang by Ernie, who expresses his love of the squeaking toy during bath time.
This song is the most popular Sesame Street song even today. It reached #16 on the Top 100 chart in 1970, and the song was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Because the Sesame Street crew has not yet found a rubber duckie that makes the same squeak as the original, the duck from 1970 is still used whenever the song is recorded again. 45 years--that's a good life for a rubber duck!
Rubber Duck Enthusiasts Everywhere
Rubber duckies are now pretty much everywhere you go. There are rumors of Queen Elizabeth II owning a rubber duckie with an inflatable crown--rumor that increased the sales of the toy by 80% for a short while in England.
There are also several rubber duckie races organized around the world. Cincinnati, Ohio holds the largest race in the United States: the Freestore Foodbank Rubber Duck Regatta.
Canada has two major yearly races: one in Saskatoon and one in Halifax. In Australia, a yearly race is held in Brisbane to raise funds for the PA Research Foundations. England holds the record for the biggest rubber duck race held, with 250,000 floating toys.